It seems everyone who is remotely associated with South Hadley is taking time to comment on the circumstances surrounding the apparent suicide of a South Hadley High School student back in January. I don’t know any of the specifics about the student who died, so I can’t provide any direct commentary (and there seems to be plenty of uninformed commentary to go around anyways). Instead, I’ll focus on what I know; in the process I’ll make some generalization that might upset people or lead them to believe I’m a narrow-minded idiot. I assure you this is not the case, but I don’t care what you think of me most of the time.
From what I hear, the press has descended on South Hadley and as I type, Anderson Cooper is going all 360 on Superintendent Sayer. Unfortunately, South Hadley’s school department lacks anyone who is skilled in the art of public relations so there is zero chance the School Department will be able to show the progress they’ve made on the bullying front. It’s too bad, because there are tons of people out there willing to share their opinion on what the schools have messed up, but not many people are coming forward to say anything good.
You’ll note that most of this has been written well before 9 students were criminally charged in connection to the suicide of a student. Not knowing these students or the underlying causes for these charges, I’m not going to comment on the specifics. The below represents statements I’ve been developing since February.
First, what qualifies me to speak on the issue? Well, I’m a senior in college. I like to think I’m sufficiently removed from the situation (4 years) whereby I can offer some unclouded views. That said, as a student I was more familiar with the administration of the high school and school district than just about any student I met during my four years in the school. Also, I’m not 40, married with 3 kids, and spending every waking minute on MassLive. I’m familiar with what actually happens on sites like Facebook, MySpace, and Twitter because I’ve used them since before parents heard about them. Lastly, I spent most of my four years in high school observing. I compartmentalized most of my social activities to 1.5 hours each day and spent the rest of the time watching what others did. I was at that lunch table that was mostly empty, or standing in the corner watching everyone else mingle after lunch. Not like in the creepy way, but in the I’ve only got a handful of friends and we don’t talk loud enough to stand in the middle of everyone and still hear ourselves kind of way.
On to the meat of the issues here…
I think everyone is on the right page when they say there are bullies in high school. I think everyone is on the wrong page when they say South Hadley has a bullying problem, or a situation that significantly deviates from the norm. I think the climate is providing an easy environment for people to say that South Hadley has a bullying problem because of some of the recent events and subsequent news coverage, unfortunately that’s just fuel for the mirage. What South Hadley does have right now, that most communities don’t, is a great way to start (and continue) the conversation about bullying in our schools. Dozens of students, former students, and parents are now coming out of the woodwork to talk about how they are/were/represent someone who was bullied during their school years. I think this is a really good conversation to be having, but we need to get the context right. We should all be working together as a community to solve this problem, not just dropping our complaints in the complaint box or pointing our finger around at past events… but that might just be my approach, I much enjoy moving forward.
At the School Committee meeting following the incident people lined up like it was a church confessional to detail the times they had been bullied. All the stories were very sad, and clearly everyone is still haunted by their high school bully today, but most people failed to present reasonable next steps. For the dialog to work, someone should have presented a story like this “I was bullied blah blah blah, but thinking back on it, I really could have used some help standing up for myself or asserting my beliefs,” not just “I was bullied blah blah blah, and you should fire everyone for not caring.” One of the things that did stand out to me was that some people were stepping forward to speak about abuses many years ago, before lots of the current faculty/staff were in their current roles. Maybe the current staff could do more about these sorts of things, but it seems like this trend isn’t new to this specific set of administrators or teachers… it has been going on since the dawn of time!
What strikes me as a little odd is the ratio of those bullied that have come forward compared to the bullies that have come forward (i.e large to zero). I think people often forget that being a bully and being bullied are not mutually exclusive states. Based on my experience, there’s actually a pretty decent probability that you’ve been responsible for “bullying” someone at least once during your four years in high school. Maybe you didn’t want to be their partner, choosing to work with your group of friends instead, maybe you laughed or snickered when you saw their test grade and then went to tell your friends about it. The tricky thing about bullying is measuring it, it is not like punching someone in the face.. counting the welts on face isn’t as easy as measuring the emotional damage someone may or may not have suffered at your tongue.
For example, I could tell my parents that someone made an insulting comment about my clothes in school today. They could be worried I was being bullied without every asking how I felt. Personally, I probably couldn’t care less if someone insulted what I wear…. but for someone else this could be a defining moment of their high school experience.
Based on my experience with the administration of South Hadley High School, they do a bang up job. As always, there is room for improvement, but I’ve observed them doing the best they can given their limited resources. The fact is that most people don’t care what happens at the high school until something really bad happens. In some of the younger schools parents involve themselves in the education process with things like the PTA and parent-teacher conferences. By the time the students are in high school, they’ve found something better to do with their time. I attended (filmed) School Committee meetings for a really long time, and the only time I saw more than one parent show up was when the sports or music budget was going to be cut. Parents never came to speak when the budget for counselors was reduced or when teaching positions were going to be reduced, it just didn’t happen. If you claim the school is in a terrible state, I can assure you it didn’t get here overnight. Where were the watchdogs last year?
There is a lot of people out there tossing blame saying that administrator X or teacher Y was made aware of the bullying and failed to stop it. I suspect if an administrator kept a list of students who they suspected were bullied, something like 75% of the school population would be on it. That’s not to say an administrator sees you gets punched in the face and just marks it down in a book, but they can tell when you’re having a rough day. There is also the parent-reporting issue. I think that a lot of the time parents report issues and kind of make a huge deal out of things. That is not to say the mold fits for the presently discussed scenario, but a lot of the time your parent calls and they are going to be furious, failing to even consider that they’re kid could have presented them with a slightly exaggerated story. It’s not like they were emotional or anything I’m sure. It’s also not likely they called in concerned their student hadn’t been doing any homework or anything educational like that; some of the most effective parent-administrator/teacher relationship I saw were parents that were concerned about their child’s school experience as a package… which includes both last weeks math test and the latest rumor about them.
I try to think what I would do if someone complained to me about a bullying issue. Having limited educational training, its a tough call. For starters, I first need to verify that an issue exists. I’ve heard one, probably over dramatized version of the story, and I need to hear the other side. The problem is that you just can’t sit the other student down and be like are you talking smack about person z? They’re gonna say no, and if they legitimately weren’t talking smack about that person they now have a reason to do so. Logically, my next step might be to conduct some digging around and ask teachers and counselors. Unfortunately, I remembered that the teachers are short handed and underpaid so they’re not the best witnesses. The counselors might be helpful, if we hadn’t reduced the number of them to four. Hrm, where does that put me. I guess I could check out some technology, unfortunately its kind of creepy to be friends with your principal on Facebook. The school resource officer might be worth a go, but I suspect his undercover Facebook skills are worse then mine. I guess I’m left with the hold-my-horses approach, raising an alert level but waiting until there is something indisputable I can catch someone on. A punch to the face would make things much easier.
I have no doubts I will be classified as very pro-South Hadley Public Schools. I don’t think that would be a lie; heck, I held a sign when I was 10 encouraging you to vote yes on 2 so we could renovate the schools. My allegiance does not come because I spent summers working for the school or because I’ve been pretty involved. My allegiance comes because I see that South Hadley Schools produce, on the most part, decent, successful, contributing members of society. Sure, I can go online and find tons of underage students drinking, but I consistently find them ending up in college and doing something decent with their life. SHHS produces very few homeless students. I also think that South Hadley is, on the whole, a pretty decent place to be raised. I don’t care about how many millions of dollars the golf course is eating, I care that people don’t get shot in gang related violence. Sure, there might be some drugs here or there, but it doesn’t get in the way of an AP Calculus class. You think South Hadley has problems, try going to Springfield! Not that I want to bash Springfield specifically, I’m just trying to point out that things could be worse…