Tuesday, January 13, 2015

Balancing Out Bias

At the beginning of last school year Crafty became friends with a boy in her class, Spark - and she was thrilled! He had many of the same interests as her and they shared the same off-beat sense of humour. They enjoyed spending time together at school, talking and joking about their favourite movies and books but in October of that year they hit a road bump in their friendship. They had a disagreement about a favourite book and that disagreement turned into a fracture in their friendship.

The resource teacher sat down with Crafty and Spark to talk things out and from Crafty's point of view, even though her pal was clearly wrong, this didn't have to be a deal breaker in their friendship. She felt that they could agree to disagree and move on. And they tried to do just that but every time they disagreed about anything Spark would go back to that first disagreement as proof that they were never friends.

By Christmas they were no longer on speaking terms. More than that, their disagreements had turned physical. Spark had started accusing Crafty of staring at him, following him and spreading rumours about him. He would (in Crafty's opinion) randomly yell at her in the hallways. And Spark had started jabbing Crafty with pencils, kicking her knees out from under her as she stood at her locker and shove her as he passed by in the hallway. And Crafty was responding with the same intensity - and hating herself afterwards.

Again in January, the resource teacher, the principal, Crafty and Spark sat down to try to resolve what was going on (I had called the school and talked with Spark's parents too by this time). Crafty laid out her complaints and asked Spark to just leave her alone. Crafty committed to minding her own business and staying away from Spark and asked Spark to do the same. Spark then said all sorts of ugly things about Crafty being stupid, a freak and deserving whatever she got because she had been gossiping about him, saying things about his family and using racial slurs. Crafty was confused and hurt and angry about these allegations as she swore she never said any of the things she was accused of.

At this point the school felt the situation was he-said-she-said and decided to have an EA with each of the kids most of the time they were at school. But the situation continued to escalate. Crafty came home from school regularly angry, bruised and hurt. She was repeatedly attacked in the school hallway (one time a pregnant teacher stepped in between the students as Spark punched Crafty in the head twice and another time the resource teacher had to hold Spark back and tell Crafty to run, for her safety) and I was constantly at the school looking for answers and help for my girl.

Daily, Spark would humiliate, yell at or make threats against Crafty. Crafty, with the support of her EA, stopped responding to the threats and attacks. She had developed the heart-breaking habit of never looking up for fear of accidentally glancing in Spark's direction and thus causing another assault. Spark continued to make threats, violent threats, against Crafty. He repeatedly threatened to stab her, taunted her by letting her know that he knew where she lived and bragged to other students that he had her terrified. Spark told me, in front of the principal and resource teacher, that he planned to stab Crafty enough times to hospitalize her but not kill her. And the more Crafty tried to avoid him, the angrier and more persistent Spark would become. He would watch her come down the hallways, looking for an opportunity to yell at her, hit her or attack her - and then blame her for it.

Crafty survived til the end of the school year and we spent two months trying to figure out how we were going to proceed in the new school year. We hoped that two months off school and away from each other would allow things to cool off but when the school year started so did the attacks. Three times in the first four weeks of school Spark came to Crafty's locker, screamed at her for being a stalker and a creep and then physically attacked her. After the third attack, with Crafty bruised and scratched, the new school administrator finally understood the severity of the situation.

And then it happened again.

For 16 months Crafty lived (and still lives) in terror of Spark. It has changed how she sees herself, her community and her place in the world. She alternates between blaming herself for bringing these attacks on herself (as she has been accused repeatedly of provoking these attacks even though witnesses and video surveillance proves otherwise) and being furious at Spark for doing this to her. Crafty never goes out alone. She doesn't go for walks or bike rides, she is afraid to go with me to the grocery store for fear of running in to Spark or his parents (on two occasions Spark's dad has yelled at me in public for not keeping my kid under control, for allowing her to provoke his son into these fits).

We are shocked. Angry. Hurt. Outraged. Disgusted.

Are you?

Oh - just one thing. This didn't happen to our daughter , Crafty. It happened to our son, Dude.

And Spark is a girl.

Are you still angry? Or did the gender reversal catch you up a bit? I respect the school and principal who worked with the kids last year. And I understand that when you are mediating situations nothing is ever black and white but I wonder if the situation would have gone on this long if the roles had been reversed, if Dude was the perpetrator and Spark the victim. I wonder if it would have taken so long to get to the truth, if Dude would have been given as many allowances and second chances despite continual violent behaviour . I wonder if Dude would have only received single day suspensions for attacking a female student - unprovoked - in the hallway. I wonder.

My point in sharing this is not to blame the school or any individual but to put a spotlight on our biased and our double standards. I saw this video on Facebook and it got me thinking … would I have done all the same things, trusted the school to handle the situation, kept the police out of it and given the same advice if it was Crafty and not Dude in this situation? I don't know.

Actually, I do know. There's no way I'd send my girl into a situation like that for 16 months. I would have jumped in with both feet much earlier. I would have protected her better. I would have advocated for her harder. And, I believe, I would have been heard earlier.

We all have bias. We all look at the world through our own life experience and perspective. We all have been affected by social norms and niceties. We all have bias towards and against things. That's just who we are.

But we can all change.

What if the boys in this video had hit the girl? What if they had kicked, spit or slapped the girl? Would you have been appalled and angered? You bet! And I would have too! But what if this video showed a group of girls being asked to hit a boy? Do you think they would have responded with the same gentleness as the boys did? Maybe. Would you have been outraged if they hadn't? Possibly. Maybe. Maybe not.

All I'm saying here is that we should question our perspective. Challenge ourselves to stretch equality both ways, to provide protection without bias and offer respect regardless of gender stereotypes. If we want our boys to grow to be men, real loving, caring, responsible, respectful men then we need to love, care and respect them as boys.

And if we want our girls to grow to be strong, independent, confident women then we need to teach them that violence is weak and meanness is a cop-out. True strength is born in character, not force and confidence is birthed in caring. Kindness is cool. Kindness is beautiful. Kindness is strong.

1 comment:

Diane Stevenson said...

Well said! And thank you for being so transparent. .