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California School District Faces Lawsuit Over Harassment
by William R. Alford
20 January 2004Hish School

A seventh grade boy has endured over 120 incidents of name-calling since starting the sixth grade at Ingrid B. Lacy Middle School in Pacifica, California last year.


Chronic teasing, name-calling, threats and violence at a middle school are causing a California school district to face litigation for the second time. According to his father, a seventh grade boy has endured over 120 incidents of name-calling since starting the sixth grade at Ingrid B. Lacy Middle School in Pacifica, California last year.

The boy’s father, Mike Shaposhnikov, claims that the Pacifica School District inadequately responded to harassment complaints. Shaposhnikov acknowledges that his son -- a straight-A student, championship ballroom dancer -- stands out from the other students. The 12-year-old wears what his father told the San Jose Mercury News are “nice clothes” to school, resulting in some students reportedly calling him a “gay fashion model.” The newspaper also reported incidents of gum thrown in the hair, shoving and a death threat.

Shaposhnikov made numerous complaints in writing and in person to the Principal Kitty Mindel and her superiors in the PSD school board soon after learning of the harassment. He claims as many as 33 students were involved. According to reports in the Pacifica Tribune, the school responded by expelling one student, holding several student/teacher workshops on bullying and teasing, alerting the police and sending notes home with children explaining that harassment is unacceptable in school for any reason.

School administrators would have demonstrated a more serious approach, Shaposhnikov told the Tribune, by sending certified letters to all of the offending students’ parents and/or requiring some sort of public act of contrition to his son.  Failing that, the school should have then reprimanded the uncooperative students and their parents.

Since starting the seventh grade this past fall, the harassment has reportedly intensified. “It doesn't matter how many workshops they had, enforcement was important. I want to expose what's going on here,” Shaposhnikov told the Tribune. The San Francisco Chronicle reports that Shaposhnikov filed a $100,000 claim against PSD on September 15, adding that any awarded moneys would be donated to charity. On October 8, the PSD board of trustees voted unanimously to reject the claim, explaining in an official statement that school administrators had been “attempting to work with” the Shaposhnikovs, but they have abandoned this process in favor of litigation.

This filing and official denial are the first steps in further expected court action. Deputy San Mateo County Counsel John Beiers explained the PSD legal position: “Did the district act promptly, reasonably and take corrective measures to attempt to stop the complaints? Yes. Did the complaints stop? Apparently not, but that doesn't make the district liable. A school cannot guarantee what 700 middle school students are going to say on a given day.”

The parents of another student at Ortega Middle School – in the same school district – were awarded a $160,000 out-of-court settlement in 1997 for private school tuition costs after being repeatedly called “gay” and “faggot.” Youth.org (a self-described advocate for “gay, lesbian, bisexual and questioning youth”) has posted what it describes as an “emotional, tear-filled speech" before the school board that year, wherein the 12-year-old in question said he “sings, tap dances and acts and is more feminine and that he has a right to do and be whatever he wants without being ridiculed for his perceived sexual orientation.”

Citing analysis of several studies on antisocial adolescent behavior, a consortium of experts offered their assessment of how effective adult intervention can be in an article entitled “When Interventions Harm: Peer Groups and Problem Behavior” published in the September 1999 American Psychologist. They found that destructive behavior tends to be peer-reinforced in group counseling settings and that comparable youth not receiving such therapy ended up better off. Further, parental cooperation in these programs did not seem help to reform.

In the case of teasing, having middle school students’ attention focused upon harassment and the particular victim can actually make it worse. The researchers in the above article found that instigators of bad behavior get more attention and that bystanders can increase their social status by joining in. One 14-year-old English boy suffered a broken arm at the hands of several boys during what the Western Morning News called “a drama class on school bullying.” The father is suing the school for improper supervision in that case.

It’s even more difficult for parents of bullied children in England, in fact. Parents who kept their abused children home were fined or threatened with imprisonment for instigating truancy, even if their children demonstrated severe psychological symptoms and/or were beaten in school.

Child education/psychology specialist Dorothy L. Espelage, PhD explains how early teens distance themselves from their parents, turning more to peers for guidance, role-modeling and acceptance. Dr. Espelage tells us that “peer groups become stratified and issues of acceptance and popularity become increasingly important.” Status can be attained by behavior [acting cool] and conformist dress. Further, there is “pressure to gain peer acceptance and status may be related to an increase in teasing and bullying.” Such bullying is especially intense as a child tries to fit in during the transition from elementary to middle school, according to Dr. Espelage – it is a quick and easy way to attain status.

Harvard and Cornell-educated computer scientist Paul Graham (a non-expert in child development) offers in “Why Nerds are Unpopular” one of the more penetrating observations of adolescent social culture – probably because he was a nerd himself. He notes that the kids who put a higher priority on learning sacrifice the considerable effort needed to be popular. This is costly, socially.

Dr. Graham debunks the bromide that many a shunned/picked-on bespectacled propeller-head is told: ‘they’re just jealous.’ No they’re not. Otherwise, some girls would “break ranks” and gravitate to the nerds. Demonstrated intelligence is not valued as much as “say, physical appearance, charisma, or athletic ability.” Although the smart kids would like to be popular, they’d rather be smart if it is a choice of one or the other – and it is, according to Dr. Graham.

Children, Dr. Graham tells us, if left to devise their own society, would most likely come up with something resembling William Golding’s The Lord of the Flies. In other words, an 11-year-old’s social milieu is “crude… stupid… [and] savage.” Given the similar authority figure-to-inmate ratio and the detachment, it also resembles prison. G. Gordon Liddy, having spent five years in federal ‘correctional institutions,’ often says on his radio program that the prisons are actually run by the prisoners.

Children are not intrinsically this way, Dr. Graham argues. Mongol teenagers or Renaissance apprentices probably did not engage in such bullying behavior because they were busy. Suburban teens are, he continues, instead warehoused in schools mostly for baby-sitting and being drilled information that is perceivably less and less relevant to anything applicable in the real world. Now that children are not working alongside adults as they learn their crafts, they have little identification with [or respect for] the adult world and thus devise their own:

Since the group has no real purpose, there is no natural measure of performance for status to depend on. Instead of depending on some real test, one's rank ends up depending mostly on one’s ability to increase one's rank. It’s like the court of Louis XIV. There is no external opponent, so the kids become one another's opponents in an inexorable zero-sum competition.

It is important to point out that the child specialists (in the cited and other researched materials) do not consider bullying to be ‘normal’ -- and certainly not acceptable. They almost universally characterize it as destructive unnecessary behavior that must be actively curbed – some even naming it as a disorder. Although the professional literature certainly demonstrates a clear grasp of what causes bullying, solutions are not as definitive. There are vague recommendations to mobilize parents and teachers to combat the problem. There is little evidence offered of any effective answers.

Shaposhnikov’s son is in middle school acting and dressing differently than the others. Given that the experts have failed to produce a definitive way to stop teasing and bullying, it is unreasonable to hold the school system responsible for failing to solve such an intractable problem. PSD offers what appears to be a well designed home school program, which would have offered the Shaposhnikov boy an opportunity bypass these pressures and concentrate on his education.

The father -- demonstrating classic Utopian elitist arrogance -- has chosen instead to have his son endure over 120 teasing/bullying ‘incidents’ while he fights the school system to somehow program the other children to behave in a manner that is simply inconsistent with the real world.

In this writer’s not-so-humble opinion, child socialization and education are in many ways incompatible, especially for juveniles. These should therefore be separate experiences, wherein the child is individually educated according to his/her abilities. Socialization should be carefully supervised, with the parents and other concerned adults deciding which children will be interacting with each other and under what circumstances -- not a government-run institution staffed by the likes of NEA members.

William R. Alford is a Government & International Politics/Electronic Journalism student at George Mason University.

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