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Just One Person

One big difference

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Not too long ago, there was a public servant who contacted me with information that a local government practice could put innocent people in harm's way or even cost them their lives. But when it came time to give me the internal information needed to prove it, he chickened out. I explained to him that I go to extremes to protect my sources and that I'd never known anyone to suffer any negative consequences because they'd shared information with me off the record. But the guy cared more about his $30,000 a year job than the public safety he was sworn to uphold and protect. He was a coward, and I told him so.

A couple times a month, I get a tip like this from grown adults too scared to provide me the info needed to stop something most of us would consider to be wrong. Most of the time, their fear isn't even that they'll suffer any consequences by talking to me, but just that their name might end up in the paper -- it wouldn't if that's what they wanted -- and people they know might talk negatively about them or their privacy might be disturbed.

All this gets me pretty jaded, because I've seen again and again the difference that one person with a big mouth can make. But every once in a while, someone comes along who says no, I won't take this, this isn't right and I'll fight back, no matter what it costs me.

When that someone is not an adult, but a 12-year-old kid willing to take on an entire school administration -- willing to say yes, put my name in the paper, I don't care what the other kids think, even though I'll have to face them -- it floors me.

When I first began reporting on Brittnay's story, on how school administrators have turned their backs on her and kids like her when they were harassed, slapped, hit and punched by other students, not one other parent at Bradley Francis Middle School would talk to me, for fear their kid would be next and that if they angered the administration, their child would have no protection. School board members told concerned constituents my articles were one-sided and inaccurate. Despite the fact that only 48 percent of Bradley students who answered a CMS Goals 2005 survey said they felt safe at the school, school administrators insisted to concerned readers that there were no violence problems at Bradley. Although Brittnay's parents were willing to pay, attorney after attorney was unwilling to take on the system and turned them down.

Brittnay has since returned to school, where she has to face the girls charged with assaulting her and all their friends. The week she returned, a teacher read one of my columns about her situation to each of her classes and told students it was all untrue. The news spread around the school and kids called her a liar. Kids she doesn't even know are aware of who she is. Some snicker and hurl insults at her. Someone spray-painted a long stripe down the row of lockers on her hall, skipping only Brittnay's. For now, each of her teachers escorts her to her next class. Brittnay fears what will happen when that ends. There are a lot of kids who want to "get" her.

But things are changing.

When a friend of the girls who assaulted her kicked Brittnay last week and called her a liar, the girl was actually punished by school officials. Some of the same school board members who initially denied there was a problem at Bradley are now saying we need to take a serious look at school violence. Parents and teachers too scared to challenge the system just weeks ago have now filled my email inbox with letters -- over two dozen about Bradley alone -- describing similar experiences in our schools. Many of them have even started signing their full names and leaving their phone numbers. Steamed attorneys willing to champion the cases of school violence victims pro bono write to enquire about taking on these cases. Inspired by Brittnay's case, last week 106.5 The End dedicated its entire four-hour drive time segment to a town hall meeting about schools and violence.

All because one 12-year-old kid decided she'd had enough.

Brittnay may have lost the three-on-one fight in the school parking lot that got her banned from school for 10 days, but she's winning the one against a system that has been reluctant to even acknowledge it has a problem.

Over the course of my career, I've seen in our community individuals with little or no means do amazing things like blocking a cement plant in a poor neighborhood, getting a dangerous road in a downtrodden area rebuilt, and changing the way rape cases are prosecuted.

And the adults described above who've let the world run folks over because it would be inconvenient or uncomfortable to make things right? When you find the gumption to pick up the phone, I'll be sitting here at Creative Loafing, waiting to take your call.

Contact Tara Servatius at tara.servatius@cln.com

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