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An invisibility cloak

Psychological brutalization for students


Her name was Beth, and she was a demon from the blackest depths of hell, masquerading as a stunningly beautiful high school cheerleader. Those of us upon whom she unleashed her wrath knew better, knew that beneath that flawless skin was the psyche of mottled and twisted swamp thing that had crawled out of the muck.

I was a terminally shy kid in high school, and I'd mastered the art of fading into the background to escape notice. Unfortunately, the English class seating chart put me smack in front of Beth, dead center in her line of vision. It didn't help that I'd gotten into the college she wanted to go to after she was rejected.

When she wasn't mocking the clothes, hairstyles and general financial status of others, she liked to smack me in the back of the head, ostensibly for not passing the papers back to her fast enough.

I'd pay hundreds of dollars to teleport the person I am today back to my high school English class for just five minutes, so I could backhand her across the face real good just one time. (OK, maybe twice.)

I'm not a violent person, and I freely admit that it is patently absurd that I still harbor anger over this 15 years later. I don't think of it often, but when I do, Beth still has the power to set me in a foul mood.

That, in turn, usually gets me thinking about the kids who truly caught hell in school, and I wonder how they're doing. I'm not talking about the kids like me, who were occasionally insulted and assaulted -- in other words, those who had a typical time of it in school. I'm talking about the couple of kids in every school who are so psychologically brutalized by others that I wonder if it still affects them decades later.

In the wake of the Virginia Tech shootings and revelations that the shooter, Cho Seung-Hui, was picked on in school, a public backlash followed, with talk radio callers chiming in that everyone gets picked on, but not everyone picks up a gun.

That's true, and Cho is the only person to blame for what he did last month. But what sticks in my craw about the whole "bullying" debate that has surrounded Cho is the tendency to lump all kids who get picked on into a single group, as if bullying is just a normal right of passage everyone goes through. For many people, that's true.

But what a small group of kids has to endure is something else entirely. A few years ago I read an ACLU press release about the degrading psychological "torture" some terrorism suspects were forced to endure when they are interrogated by our government. I was unimpressed because I knew kids in high school who went through much worse. The difference, of course, was that the terrorists could make it stop by telling their interrogators what they wanted to know. Not so with these kids.

I've described how several of these students were treated by Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools officials in this space over the years. There was Brittnay, who was beaten daily in between classes by a group of hair-brush wielding girls whose violence eventually escalated into a final, vicious attack in a school parking lot. Things went fuzzy after Brittnay's head hit the concrete. Her parents eventually moved her to a school district in another county. A few years ago, the mother of Lauren Jay, then 13, pleaded with officials at Alexander Middle School to change her bus assignment after two other girls developed a habit of smacking Jay around. School officials did nothing, and Jay was beaten so badly she required surgery and spent two months drinking through a straw after one of the girls fractured her jaw.

More recently, I profiled a 13-year-old honors student who was sexually abused on a school bus by two boys the school system declined to punish, even though one of them admitted in writing to sexually abusing the girl. The school system's solution was to remove the girl from the bus, forcing her parents to drive her to another bus stop.

When I was in school, it always amazed me how utterly oblivious teachers and administrators seemed to be to the plight of the kids who took the worst abuse.

It wasn't that the kids who doled it out didn't get in trouble -- they did. But it was usually for stuff like making noise in class, not for the vicious nature of what they said, or the fact that they said it every day in ruthless attacks on the same person.

The worse a kid got picked on, the more invisible he or she seemed to become to the adults around them.

I guess nothing much has changed.

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