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OP-ED | When Adults - and Politicians - Are Bystanders to Bullying

by Sarah Darer Littman | Feb 7, 2014 9:48am
(6) Comments | Commenting has expired
Posted to: Education, Opinion

“After all there are no innocent bystanders. What are they doing here in the first place?”—William S. Burroughs

On Tuesday evening, I attended a screening in Greenwich of two documentaries about bullying: “The Bully Effect” and “Bystanders: Ending Bullying.” The panel discussion afterward was long overdue, and it’s tragic that it took the suicide of a Greenwich High sophomore, Bart Palosz, on the first day of school, to finally get this conversation to happen.

Palosz’ sister Beata, told the Greenwich Time about the relentless bullying her brother suffered and how it was ignored by the school system.

Watching assistant principal Kim Lockwood’s insensitive dismissal of the parents who came to discuss their son’s treatment gave me a PTSD reaction. It reminded me of how I was fobbed off by the assistant principal at Western Middle School in Greenwich when I went to complain about bullying my son was experiencing.

Western is the same school that Bart Palosz attended. Sadly, it seems that despite the anti-bullying statutes, signed into law by Gov. Dannel P. Malloy in 2011, not enough has changed.

But it takes more than signing legislation. It takes willingness to act — consistently. It’s about modeling behavior. This was rightly pointed out by panelist Ed Moran, senior social worker and community educator at Family Centers.

I think this is best summed up by a Dorothy Law Nolte poem my parents had on the wall in my childhood home, “Children Learn What They Live.

The obvious lesson is that “Do as I say, but not as I do” is not an effective parenting strategy; nor is it effective school leadership.

Being a bystander to bullying is what enables it to continue. As Barbara Coloroso defines them in her book, The Bully, The Bullied and The Bystander, bystanders “aid and abet the bully, by acts of omission and commission.”

When the bystanders are adults in the administrative and political infrastructure, as they were in my son’s case and appear to be in Hartford, it is all the more disturbing.

In September 2012, the state Education Department made a site visit to Capital Prep Magnet School as a result of a parent complaint dated May 2012 that had gone unaddressed by Capital Prep administrators and Hartford Superintendent of Schools Christina Kishimoto’s office for months.

The Education Department laid out steps that Capital Prep needed to take to comply with state laws and regulations. Despite this, Capital Prep didn’t file a Corrective Action Plan on its bullying policies until October 2013, some 13 months after the site visit. Not only that, but as has been reported by Jonathan Pelto based on documents obtained through an FOI request, as of Dec. 23, 2013, even after the long delay, Capital Prep still wasn’t in compliance on its Corrective Action Plan.

Let’s reiterate for the sake of clarity: 19 months after parents filed a complaint with the Education Department regarding the bullying experienced by their child at the school, Capital Prep still wasn’t in compliance.

Yet, Kishimoto appears to be doing nothing about it. Even more astonishing, the Hartford Board of Education was ready to reward Perry for his negligence and non-compliance with another school.

Even more disturbing is that State Education Commissioner Stefan Pryor is seriously considering rewarding Perry with a charter school in Bridgeport. There are several ethical issues in need of investigation surrounding the formation of Perry’s charter company, but that is fodder for another column. It’s gotten to the point where I’m starting to wonder whether Perry has photos of all these people in compromising positions, because it seems to be the only rational explanation for continuing to ignore, condone, and reward his behavior.

That’s all before I’ve even mentioned Perry’s conduct on the Internet. We all know about the infamous “Strap up, there will be head injuries” tweet, which the principal then claimed was a “metaphor,” suggesting that perhaps he needs a remedial English class to learn the actual meaning and use of metaphor.

But then there are what appear to be the sock puppet blog comments, on posts regarding Capital Prep. Pelto has recorded over 100 comments originating from the same IP address under a variety of handles.

Most recently, these were on a post highlighting a piece written by former teacher Michael Fryar, who was terminated from Capital Prep after filing an employment discrimination complaint.

Just as there is an Internet use policy for students in Hartford Public Schools, there also is one for adults.

I emailed David Medina, director of communications for Hartford Public Schools, asking for confirmation of the IP address 67.186.139.152 and whether it was part of the Hartford Public Schools network. He did not respond to my email before this posting. According to a listing service, the IP is located in Hartford.

It appears that the only way for the press to get a response from Hartford Public Schools is by filing a formal Freedom of Information request.

Perhaps the greatest irony in this whole situation is that as a certified administrator in Connecticut, Perry is no doubt being afforded due process rights like any other unionized employee -–  the rights he despises so publicly as the scourge of the education system and is so anxious to deny to teachers employed at Capital Prep and elsewhere around the country. One suspects that if it weren’t for due process, or some other unrevealed leverage, Mr. Perry might well be out of a job.

Sarah Darer Littman is an award-winning columnist and novelist of books for teens. A former securities analyst, she’s now an adjunct in the MFA program at WCSU, and enjoys helping young people discover the power of finding their voice as an instructor at the Writopia Lab.

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(6) Comments

posted by: brutus2011 | February 7, 2014  8:19pm

brutus2011

Ms. Littman makes a compelling case for greater administrative adult engagement with the issue of bullying in our schools—much greater.

This article also points out that it is not only children who bully other children, it is also adults who bully other adults. This is made clear in this article and in other news articles and blogs as well.

I would like to point out that the urban public school district administrators I have dealt with are not above using fear, intimidation and even defamation to exercise power and control over others.

Defamation is particularly pernicious because either libel, slander per se, or slander are not cases that attorneys are willing to take on contingency. Thus, a retainer of 20K-30k is required to bring an action for a civil wrong brought by a school administrator. This kind of power play by managers is commonplace because “they can.”

To sum up, we adults need to do a lot better to model appropriate behavior to our young—especially our so-called leaders.

posted by: Castles Burning | February 8, 2014  12:39pm

Sarah, this is a marvelous piece as it moves and links bullying of students to systemic bullying by a school system and to those who protect the identity of the “alledged” bullyer (the principal who may be awarded a school in Bridgeport to “oversee”). 

You point out the irony of the story as well.  You prove—again—that truth is stranger than fiction. I invite all readers, to whom some of the details are probably familiar, to step back and read it with a fresh perspective.

Then, we are left with the brilliant epigraph (which resounds throughout the piece) and has a very specific message to all readers: “After all there are no innocent bystanders. What are they doing here in the first place?”—William S. Burroughs

posted by: Castles Burning | February 8, 2014  9:22pm

Sarah, thanks for calling attention to the critical role that bystanders or witnesses play in bullying.  As your article demonstrates, there is much “aiding and abetting” of bullying going on in CT, and perhaps most egregiously, at the highest levels of power.

Your epigraph by William S. Burroughs, which I had never heard before and fell in love with (“After all there are no innocent bystanders. What are they doing here in the first place?”) indicts and I hope motivates many.

Fortunately, as you have noted and referenced, many are coming forth to tell their stories of the systemic abuse of power at Capital Prep.  And, as you make clear, “I saw/heard nothing” appears to be the answer from all levels of administration in Hartford. They are shown to be “guilty” on many levels in this column.

What is to be done?  The answer CANNOT BE that Steven Perry is “awarded” more charter schools. We, bystanders all, have got to find a way to stop the bullying.

posted by: Historian | February 9, 2014  3:47pm

I do not understand why victims and their parents do not simply file Breach of Peace charges against these thugs - and that includes school employees who fail to take action.. In addition civil lawsuits need to be filed and prosecuted to completion against the perpetrator and any enablers.
  Law suits are the way to stop this nonsense almost immediately.  Note - to be effective suits must be filed against school officials.  PS When making a complaint Video tape it and have at least two witnesses present.  It the so called public employee refuses to participate in the video taping, -because he will be unable to lie his or her way out later - File the law suit anyway. Let us then watch some judge try to protect his fellow ‘civil servants” from being held responsible for this plague on children.

posted by: Joebigjoe | February 10, 2014  9:35am

Bullying has gone on for thousands of years and will go on for another 10 years until global warming cooks us all….kidding.

The issue is all about mixed messages to bystanders and also mixed messages to the victims.

First of all the real world is such that when words dont work to stop bullying then there should be two options. One which has worked for ages is to punch the bully in the mouth/nose/jaw hard.

Second is if you are smaller and younger and frightened to do that, older larger bystanders should be able to do that for you if their words don’t work.

Bullies who are afraid of what will happen to them since physical damage to ones jaw, teeth or nose hurts, will stop. The ones that continue are probably mentally ill and need to be taken away from that situation.

Oh by the way, this all works for kids bullying each other too.

posted by: ASTANVET | February 11, 2014  9:26pm

I find it mildly annoying that there is a well written article about bullying on one page, then on the next about how the liberals want to bully the conservatives in this state into forced compliance to their agenda.  There is a word for that but it escapes me… starts with a “B”, ends with an “ULLYING”...