Raising “upstanders," not bystanders

Photo by Patricia Glogowski

My son is my world. He’s full of energy and a natural helper. He’s attentive to younger kids and likes to be the one to help the teacher; he's sensitive and close with his stepbrother. If he had his way he’d always be outside riding his bike.

I used to feel like I understood my son, even on the days when he told me he didn’t want to go to school. I didn’t know there were signs I should be watching for; I thought it was just kid stuff and assumed he dragged his feet out the door because class was boring and he’d rather be playing. I missed what he wasn’t able to communicate to me, and the other adults in his life dismissed what was happening to him until it was almost too late.

My son was being bullied at school; every day was hell for him. He was teased mercilessly on the playground as other students told him he was gay, ugly and that no one liked him. He was pushed around and socially shunned by the other kids. Either no one noticed or his bullies received a shrug: “Kids will be kids, what are you going to do?”

The teachers and counselors at my son’s public school in Killeen, Texas, didn’t tell me how my son was suffering until he admitted to them that he’d rather die than go through another day of school. He was thinking about how he could kill himself; at the time, he was just 9 years old. 

His school had no plans, no procedures and no rules about how to communicate with parents, and it wasn’t until my son was face to face with death that anyone from the school contacted me. Instead of having had the chance to console him every day and help him confront his challenges, I had to take him to the emergency room and he had to go through an intensive psychiatric outpatient program.

I asked the school for a copy of their procedures for dealing with bullying like what my son endured, and the best they could come up with was a definition of bullying. The school wasn’t prepared to deal with bullying and, as a result, my son returned for only two days before we had to withdraw him so that his classmates couldn’t destroy the fragile progress he had made.

This is when I sought out resources on my own. I found the Tyler Clementi Foundation, read Tylers story and learned about the foundation’s programs that can prevent bullying. I still can’t believe that, even eight years after the loss of Tyler to bullying, more schools haven’t created policies with consequences and implemented prevention programs.

A program that worked with children to prevent them from being cruel to each other would have changed our lives and saved my son from so much suffering. The Tyler Clementi Foundation knows how to teach prevention and foster “upstanders,” children who won’t stand by when one of their classmates is teased, bullied or harassed. I wish the foundation’s #Day1 anti-bullying program had been in the public schools where we live.

We live in a country where even our youngest students train to survive an active shooter, someone bigger than they are who’s armed with a weapon. Along with their teachers, they practice what to do, how to lock doors and shelter in corners.

If we can train our students to survive gun violence, surely it is our job to ensure they survive each other. The only way to make this happen is to change classroom culture, raise upstanders instead of bystanders and maintain spaces that are safe, where cruelty is noticed and not tolerated.

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