South Carolina mom Jamie Rathburn was so frustrated with school bullies at her child’s elementary school, she barged onto campus and angrily confronted a group of third graders, which resulted in her being arrested and charged with disturbing schools.
A few months later, Christian Chylyn Prince-Tinsley, an Orange County, California mother, also went to campus to confront her child’s bullies. The incident became the subject of a viral video in which Tinsley threatened students’ families, saying, “You all think you’re bullies? Well I’m the big bully… y’all better leave her alone.” The incident also led to criminal charges for Tinsley: one count of interference with the good order and administration of a school classroom with the intent to disrupt, which carries a possible one-year jail term.
Let’s face it: part of the audience that made these stories go viral admired these moms’ direct, take-no-prisoners, mama grizzly bear approach to protecting their young. But both mothers wound up facing criminal charges, essentially for turning into bullies themselves.
These mothers’ actions can be examined in two ways: as a cautionary tale about how deeply frustrated parents of a bullying victim can become in the face of school inaction, and a lesson for parents about how not to effectively handle bullies.
School bullying is spelled out fairly consistently in most states’ laws, but there is vast variation from school to school when it comes to implementing and acting on anti-bullying policies.
Though their actions were clearly inappropriate, these moms should not take all of the blame. Both of these mothers said they talked to school officials prior to the confrontations. Given that, the question to ask is what broke down in conversations between the school, students, and parents? Did the school implement a clear plan of action to address the situation? Was information about that plan shared with both the parent and the child?
A plan of action might include separating the students, offering counseling, and instituting anonymous reporting policies. Yet while student reporting is important, schools should also have teacher training programs in place, which help faculty learn to observe and to recognize which students may be most susceptible to bullying, to recognize it when it occurs, and respond to it early.
The fact that these parents felt so desperate that their only option seemed to be to take matters into their own hands indicates something deeply amiss with their schools’ anti-bullying policies.
Bullying is a pattern of behavior. If a parent reports the bullying and the situation continues to escalate after that conversation has taken place, that school has failed to disrupt the cycle that enables and feeds the behavior.
If your child comes home and tells you they’ve been bullied, take the following steps.
– Talk with school administrators, and document the complaints you’ve made on behalf of your child. Every phone call should be followed up with a confirmation email, saying something like, “Thank you for you time on the phone. To review our conversation, the following steps will be taken … If there’s anything I left out, let me know.” Even if the school does not respond, it still gives you credibility. If they don’t correct your summary, you can assume your understanding of what steps the school plans to take is correct.
– While you may be really angry, it’s good to understand that educators are often under a lot of stress. Appreciate their point of view and come to them from a place of respect. People respond better to someone who can empathize with their position.
– Ask for a copy of the school’s anti-bullying policy early in the process. That way, it not only gives you useful information, but informs school officials that you intend to work within the system.
– Don’t expect that the bully will be expelled instantly. It doesn’t work that way.
– Know that a single incident is seen as a “fight.” But the term “bullying” means that there is a pervasive pattern of misconduct related to being in a position of power.
– If your child is being physically abused, don’t wait — get police involved.
– If none of this works, don’t keep your child in a situation where they can be harmed. And talk to a lawyer well before it gets to that point.
When kids engage in bullying, there’s a reason: they feel empowered by their actions, and they’re getting feedback that makes them feel more powerful. Your job as a parent is to effectively seize your own power by working in tandem with officials at your child’s school to disrupt that positive feedback loop for the bully and restore a feeling of peace and security for your child. Though it may have a certain gut-level appeal, disrupting the school day with threats won’t help you achieve that goal.