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Guest Column: 'He begged us not to send him back'


Family speaks up about young teen's bullying experience at a Lake Orion middle school


December 29, 2010 - By Margaret Trimer-Hartley

Reviewed by Nik Hartley

Handcuffs and hospitals. Depression and anxiety. Fear and apathy.

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Nik Hartley and Margaret Trimer-Hartley. Photo courtesy daymonjhartley.com (click for larger version)
These are not the things we expected our academically talented son to face when we moved to Lake Orion three years ago. But after six months of relentless bullying at our neighborhood middle school, Nik, now 15, is still struggling with what can only be compared to post traumatic stress disorder.

He went to the hospital in handcuffs after threatening suicide. He suffers from depression and anxiety disorder. He has lost interest in academics.

FITTING IN

Nik was blessed with mainstream good looks. He can blend into almost any crowd, until he opens his mouth. Then, it's clear he's different. He is intellectual beyond his years. Early on, his peers labeled him as odd because of his quirky interests and his depth of knowledge about topics like classical music composers, sea creatures and arachnids.

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We tried not to broadcast that he'd been "diagnosed" as gifted. What school appreciates a mom who wears that on her sleeve? Who likes the kid who comes in with "nerd" written all over him? And what are our schools really doing to reach that population, anyway?

We stepped in only when it was clear Nik needed academic enrichment or behavior support. Otherwise, we let him introduce himself and find his way, as every child must.

It worked in the small nurturing community of Williamston, just outside Lansing, where we lived for most of his life. It didn't work so well in Lake Orion.

FALLING APART

Nik looks like — and lives like — most of the kids at our neighborhood middle school.

But because he thinks differently, he was a ripe target for the bullies when he landed there in the middle of sixth grade.

For all its academic horsepower, the Blue Ribbon Exemplary School seemed ill-equipped to integrate the new with the old, the quirky with the mainstream. The administrators seemed frustrated, almost angry with us when we pushed so hard for help.

Small for his age, and sporting shoulder length hair, our boy was greeted at school with a barrage of insults from his peers. "Fag" became the preferred moniker for him. Students physically assaulted him in the hallway with pens, pencils, fists.

One student shoved my son's head into his crotch, told him to smell it and "see if it smells infected to you." Nik came home that day feeling as though he had been "sexually assaulted"—his words. The school administrators concluded that Nik should not have been in the locker room at the time the seventh grade students were and, thus, they did nothing to address the offense. They basically blamed our son for what happened.

He still shudders at the thought of that experience. Several people, including Nik's therapist, told me we should have filed assault charges.

MOVING FORWARD

We selected this community because we believed it offered the best schools, parks, housing and quality of life we could afford.

We visited the school before we enrolled him, checked in with the counselor and talked openly about who Nik is and what challenges we expected.

To their credit, teachers and administrators tried to help at first. They just didn't seem to have effective tools. So in all-too typical form, they ended up holding Nik responsible for fixing the problem. They told him he needed to learn how not to be a target.

In a moment of frustration during a family conference they even told us Nik should just fight back.

Nik is lucky. He made it through the 2006-07 school year alive, albeit scarred—and scared. He begged us not to send him back to Lake Orion Community Schools, and we have not.

He is now a ninth grader at a math-and science-focused charter school I run in Detroit. He stands out there, too. He is the only Caucasian student and one of only a few economically advantaged students. Yet he has found friends, acceptance, a fresh start—and a zero tolerance approach to bullying.

Nik is still limping along the path to recovery. He is, like so many teenage boys, struggling to stay motivated in school and focused on the future.

With the help of meds and periodic therapy, our boy is coping with his depression, anger and occasional thoughts of suicide.

Being the victim of bullying in sixth grade is surely not the only source of his problems. But it made the already difficult journey through adolescence much more traumatic for our son. I hope that the dialog that has begun here thanks to the MINDS organization, and the 1000 Conversations about Mental Health in Lake Orion, will enable our community to change the culture enough so that my seven-year-old daughter can wend her way through middle and high school without fear, and with the support that every child needs to grow up healthy in mind, body and spirit.

Editor's note: Oakland County Sheriff Michael Bouchard speaks on Bullying, Wednesday, Jan. 5 at the Orion Township Library, 825 Joslyn Road, 7 p.m.

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