Powerless

by Jodi Campbell

This is not an article about answers. This is an article about questions. It’s an article about how I can’t imagine how something like this could happen in a time like this, when there are more programs, presentations, books, talk shows and policies about bullying than ever before. It’s a story about how an entire family managed to be the target of bullying by principals, teachers, an athletic director, a coach, various students and, really, by an entire school district. 


When my son was in seventh grade he took a required swimming class. One day after class he was changing in the locker room. Just after he took off his swimsuit to put his school clothes back on a boy approached him from behind and kicked him in the genitals. My son fell to the ground. He was naked. Someone turned out the lights in the locker room and my son was beaten by a group of kids. Other than the first boy who kicked him, he doesn’t know who they were or how many there were. After beating him up, the kids took his books and papers and shoved them in a nearby toilet. One or more proceeded to urinate on the books. Then they left my son there alone in the dark. He stayed there for awhile, eventually put on his clothes and sat against the wall crying and screaming. At some point, a teacher found him.

He only ever told school officials about the books in the toilet, nothing else. Do you know why? Because when he told them about the books in the toilet and that the boys urinated on them, the principal at the time asked my son, “Are you sure you didn’t pee on them yourself?” Instantly, my son shut down. He had tried to tell the school officials what happened, but he never got any further than this. And he never told me or his father about it – not for more than four years. This sweet loving boy held all of this inside and only ever told one person, his twin brother. Together, the two of them kept his secret until a few months ago.

This was not the first time my son had been bullied. It seems like for as long as I can remember I’ve been calling, emailing and meeting with people at his school to report students using hateful slurs about him. Since the fourth grade, boys have been calling him “gay” and “fag,” simply because his name rhymes with the word “gay.” The problem is, it stuck. Before you ask…in respect to being picked on in this way, it doesn’t matter if my son is gay, straight or anything else. Regardless of sexual orientation, this behavior is completely unacceptable. Using derogatory, hateful language in any context will hurt the person being targeted and also any bystanders who may be struggling with this issue silently. It’s just wrong. No discussion.

But, no matter how many times I went to the school, it never mattered. It continued. Not one teacher, guidance counselor or principal in the elementary school, middle school or high school was ever effective in getting the abuse to stop. If anything it got worse. Walk through the schools in that district and there are anti-bullying posters on the walls. There are programs for kids. And you want to know the ironic part? I was invited into the district as an expert to do trainings for teachers on bullying. I guess I should have known there was no hope in that district when the teachers in my trainings would say things like, “Don’t you think bullying is just a rite of passage? Don’t you think it makes kids stronger?” I should have known then that my child wasn’t safe. I should have known then that NO CHILD is really safe as long as the adults only give lip service to the bullying problem.

As the years went on my son continued to be the target of bullying by derogatory slurs about his sexual orientation. When he left elementary school and went to middle school, some of his old buddies found a way to fit in with other popular kids – by ganging up on my son and making fun of him. His buddies from elementary school told all his new middle school classmates that he was gay. My son never had a chance. Perception is reality. I believe this is what led to the incident in the swimming locker room. But by that time, my son had lost any faith or trust in adults. I thought I had a good relationship with him, and I still believe I do – but he didn’t tell me about what happened. He was afraid of retaliation.

In high school the violence has continued. During freshman year my son was randomly beaten up by a boy outside near the buses. Although this kid was disciplined for his behavior, my son was accused of provoking him, when all he said was “hello.” Again, the issue of sexual preference came up. I have no idea why since this wasn’t even a factor in the incident. My son reported to me later that school officials pressured him to admit he was gay during the investigation. In his sophomore year we had to go back to the school because members of the soccer team were posting that my son was a “fag” on their coach’s Facebook page. Yes, you heard me right – on their COACH’S Facebook page. These kids accused my twin sons of having sex with each other. They slammed my son into lockers in the hallway. When all was said and done, the ONLY reason anything was accomplished that time was because there was video evidence of my son being slammed into lockers. The hate slurs and Internet bullying were never addressed.

By junior year, the hate slurs finally subsided as both of my sons had developed romantic relationships with girls in the school. It should NOT have taken them having girlfriends for the slander to stop. Their sexuality is not the point. Hate language is universally unacceptable. But the school tells me there is nothing they can do about it and it’s just part of kids’ behavior at this age. I propose that this attitude is at least partly why kids do not trust adults. We just throw our hands up and say there’s nothing we can do.

Just as things started to look better for both of my boys there was a serious incident at a soccer game. The boys were at an away contest in the community. While waiting for the game to begin, the star player on the team attacked my son. He started yelling at my son, cursing at him and kicking him. This attack came from out of nowhere. Later, we learned there was a misunderstanding. This other kid thought my son was laughing at him, but in reality he was laughing at something else completely. My son had bruises on his leg and arm. I took pictures and called the coach. The coach promised to address the issue. You know how he addressed the issue? He had a “talk” with this other boy. He told the captain of the team (another student) to “mediate” between my son and this boy before a game the next day — unsupervised. This kid who assaulted my child STARTED in the next game, while my son was benched.

Furious, we went to the assistant principal. We talked to the head principal, the athletic director and anyone we could reach. There were kids that corroborated my son’s story, including his brother. We were told by the school that his brother’s statement would not count and that no one else saw what happened so therefore, they could do nothing. Nothing. They could do nothing. My son was openly assaulted, and because they did not have video evidence (even though the evidence was all over my son’s body) they did nothing. The kid continued to start every soccer game the rest of the season. There were no consequences for his behavior.

I was ready to go to the police but my son begged me to let it go. He is worried that if we take it any further the coach will not let him make the team next year. My son is afraid of retaliation from an adult. And I’m powerless. No matter what I do it could hurt my son – go to the police, not go to the police, get a lawyer, not get a lawyer, do something, do nothing...it doesn’t matter because any of these things could result in further suffering for my child.

People call me an expert. I can tell you all about the types of bullying, why it happens, who does it and more. I can give you suggestions about how to handle it. But in the end, if adults are not working together to keep kids safe – even as an expert, I’m completely powerless.

There is no more to the story. I’m just here, angry about what’s happened. My son is afraid and I’m angry. I have no answers, just questions. And I know my son is NOT the only kid who is going through this. The only thing I can think to do is to tell you about it – professionals, parents, policy makers, law enforcement, media. We must demand more of each other in the face of bullying. We need laws and authority to make it stop. |

Jodi Campbell, Director of Organizational Development and Training for the KidsPeace Institute, has more than 18 years experience working in children’s mental and behavioral health. She has a broad range of direct-care experience with children ages 4-21 with various diagnoses in short-term and long-term hospital, therapeutic residential, independent living and drug and alcohol rehabilitative settings and is currently pursuing a doctorate in psychology with Capella University. She has published articles on the topics of bullying, trauma and crisis intervention and has been interviewed by major media outlets on the topics of parenting, child safety and other issues. For the past 14 years she has been teaching and developing curriculum for direct care and clinical staff in more than 25 areas of instruction related to children’s developmental and behavioral health including trauma, resilience, suicide prevention, bullying and aggression, child and adolescent development, preventing boundary breaking and abusive relationships and LifeSpace Crisis Intervention. Jodi has been invited to speak at local, regional and national conferences on these and other topics related to the mental health profession. Jodi’s community volunteer involvement includes board positions within Pennsylvania’s local, council and district PTA organizations and advanced regional licensure under the National Soccer Coaches Association of America.