By Jane Weisbecker Arnone
Parents Need to Be Accountable for the Bullies They Raise (Redux)
On April 8, 2010, the Greenwich Time published an opinion piece I submitted after the death of Phoebe Prince, the South Hadley, Massachusetts teenager who committed suicide after being viciously bullied by her high school classmates. (http://www.greenwichtime.com/local/article/Hold-parents-accountable-for-the-bullies-they-440699.php) In that piece, I described the circumstances of my own daughter, who at the time was in the midst of a multi-year struggle with post traumatic stress disorder caused by several years of merciless bullying at Western Middle School. At the time, I hoped that my comments pointing out the obvious – that bullying is clearly a problem of epic proportions in every seemingly enlightened American town, including Greenwich – might inspire school administrators and local officials to heed the call to take more aggressive action to prevent a tragedy like the Phoebe Prince case from occurring locally.
Fast forward to August 2013, the month that the shock and heartbreak of the Prince family and the South Hadley community lands directly on the Palosz family and Greenwich. Not one person who heard the news was unaffected by the fact that on the sunny afternoon of his first day as a sophomore at Greenwich High School (GHS), 15 year old Bart Palosz — who apparently had been tormented by school bullies for a decade – ended his life by shotgun blast. For my family, this incredibly tragic news hit home: Bart is in my youngest daughter’s class at GHS (class of 2016) and she had been his friend since Western Middle School. Beyond intense sympathy for the Palosz family, all I could think when I heard about Bart’s death was “there but for the grace of God go I.”
As I related in my 2010 piece, I know from first-hand experience that not enough is being done on any level (state or town-wide) to end bullying. In our case, the Greenwich school system’s answer to my daughter’s bullying torment for 3 years at Western Middle School followed by a few harrowing months at GHS was to send her to Arch, Greenwich’s “alternative” high school. Once there, we were told that Arch had no alternative but to require my daughter to attend small, intimate classes with a boy whose bullying of her had been documented by school authorities for at least 5 years in two different schools and for which he had been suspended on at least one occasion. The insensitivity of forcing a kid to attend class under these circumstances was stunning and never rectified. In the end, the bully prevailed: he graduated (GHS Class of 2013) and my daughter did not.
I am horrified by the thought that in just a few short years, the Palosz family will have to endure a similar but yet incredibly more painful circumstance. If still in Greenwich, they will have to cope with the knowledge that Bart’s classmates who smashed his new Android phone, smashed his head against a locker so forcefully that he required stitches, and eventually smashed his self esteem beyond repair will graduate from GHS while Bart will not. In the end of the Palosz family’s story, like mine, the bullies will have prevailed, and this cycle will continue to devastate other families for naught -- unless aggressive policies are not just investigated but actually implemented by the Greenwich schools to lessen the impact of Superbullying, both at school and on cyberspace.
This comment is not addressed to the Greenwich school system alone. As I opined in 2010, punishment at school or via the judicial system alone will not stop bullies. From what I have read about Bart’s case, it mirrors my daughter’s, in that the school system was apparently on notice of Bart’s issues and probably took actions within the limitations of its current policies to address those issues. Some of Bart’s bullies may even have been suspended or faced criminal charges; these facts will come to light as the town slowly grapples with the facts surrounding Bart’s death. But the apparent lack of success in dealing with Bart’s bullies, like my daughter’s, most likely relates to the fact that there remains a significant hole in the anti-bullying strategies being employed in Greenwich and elsewhere. Specifically, while the schools vocally embrace a zero tolerance bullying policy, engage in worthy programs like “Names Day” for GHS freshmen, and hold bullying awareness assemblies for students in all grades, these programs largely exclude parents. It is this exclusion that guarantees only limited success for any antibullying policies or programs that the schools undertake.
In the days and weeks ahead, I expect to hear that the Palosz family encountered the same circumstances that we did: even though bullies were identified and disciplined by school administrators, and their parents were contacted, the parents in most cases showed overwhelming concern for the potential negative impact on their children’s permanent school records and little or no concern for their children’s capacity to mercilessly torture fellow students. My suggestion in 2010 was that parents of extreme bullies should face criminal charges, similar to those filed in South Hadley against the parents of Phoebe Prince’s bullies. I also suggested that parents of Greenwich bullies be required to (i) complete programs of family counseling, (ii) attend antibullying classes before their children are allowed to attend Greenwich schools, and (iii) join their bully children in performing community service, with a view towards increasing empathy for others.
Three years later, now that the heartbreaking suicide of a bullying victim has hit home, I renew the call that the Town of Greenwich take a fresh look at its antibullying policies, with a view towards increasing parental accountability. In addition to the suggestions noted above, it seems clear that the Greenwich School District should expand its antibullying curriculum and programs to include parents, requiring the parents of documented bullies to complete antibullying courses or find alternate education providers for their children. The GHS “Names Day” program should be expanded to every grade level and also include a “Names Night,” where parents on all sides of the bullying issue can be educated and have a forum to air concerns. The Greenwich Schools should also implement in the middle schools (as they have at GHS) a dedicated hotline or website for middle school students to anonymously report bullying incidents involving themselves or their peers.
Back in 2010, I called on the town to take aggressive steps to deal with bullying in memory of Phoebe Prince. Today, with my deepest sympathies and condolences to the Palozs family for the loss of their lovely and irreplaceable son, I urge the Town of Greenwich to promptly complete its investigation of Bart’s death and direct all of its considerable energies towards finally resolving this critical issue in memory of Bart.