Until this week I never paid much attention to bullying. I’d never been bullied, I never bullied anyone, and so it was one of those things that make you cringe when you hear about it, but what can you do?
Then on Monday our daughter was the victim of a cyberbullying attack at her high school. You can read about it here.
When someone attacks a member of your family, your natural instinct is to lash out. To get revenge. To make the attackers pay.
This concept of revenge stayed with me hard for the first two days of this incident. Once we alerted the school principal, and, per his request, sent him all of the evidence pointing to the attackers, it was out of our hands. We were assured that perpetrators would be brought to justice that suited the crime. Because … it is a crime. A serious crime.
My next course of action was to write about it. I’m a writer. I get paid to write. Writing is both cathartic for me, and helps me make decisions about things when I call on my deep network of friends and family to help me sort things out.
So I wrote about the incident and posted it on my blog Monday night. I told the truth as I knew it, and let the evidence speak for itself, taking care not to directly incriminate any students in any way. Because, you know, writing online isn’t new to me. And I understand the law.
In the end I wrote a 1500-word narrative–and people responded. Boy did people respond.
On Tuesday the post received thousands of unique visits from people all over the world. On Wednesday that number doubled. Moreover, I received thousands of tweets, DMs, texts, and emails in support of the post and my mission to see justice done. People reached out with very personal stories of being victims of bullying that moved me to see that this issue was more than me getting revenge for an attack on my daughter. I had no idea that bullying was so important to people.
I also received plenty of negative feedback from parents of the attackers (who aren’t even mentioned in the post) who claimed that my post was “ruining their child’s” lives. There were hate messages too with people calling me some pretty bad things. Even kids at the school responded with threats for me to take the post down—a post where no one was mentioned or identified. It was remarkable to see this kind of feedback when it was my child who was attacked. Nevertheless, for every demand for me to remove the post there were 500 people saying for me to fight to the end and make these people pay.
Revenge is a strong motivator that uses feedback as fuel.
And revenge is ugly and dark.
At my core, I wanted justice. But revenge was in control.
Through our networks we received valuable information as to our options. The school was going to do their own investigation and hand out punishments, but we were thinking that perhaps as a way to deter kids from engaging in bullying that charges should be filed. Nothing like a little tough love to help straighten out wayward, impressionable kids.
By Wednesday afternoon the post had gone viral and news people were contacting me for the story. We weren’t prepared to go that route however, since it could potentially do more harm than good. Plus, I’m not a big fan of the media who mostly want clicks for ad revenue. No, my post was doing pretty well in terms of framing the narrative. Friends from all over the world retweeted and shared the post. Local Charlotte people sent it to CMS, the police department, and even the FBI.
People. Hate. Bullies.
And I know this sounds repetitive, but I had no idea until this week.
All the while, I continued (and continue) to receive threats from parents and friends of the attackers who simply couldn’t read the post and see my daughter the victim, but rather how it negatively affected their child. Children who weren’t even mentioned. Again, it was a remarkable thing to witness. People tend to see things how they want to see them rather than seeing the truth.
As of this writing, not one person responsible for the attack has offered an apology to my daughter.
In case I haven’t made it clear, I have a very strong network of some very passionate and smart people. Really smart. So smart that I had lawyers lined up to help us fight this battle, and cyber security experts unraveling IP addresses of the threatening comments so that we can present this information to the proper authorities.
I need to back up a bit.
We have two daughters. The freshman, Cozette, endured the attack on Monday. She’s the strongest person I know. She’ll come through this fine and will help others come through bullying too. Just watch.
Our other daughter, Agatha, is a junior at the same school. Once she heard about the attack, she mobilized some friends and they brainstormed and came up with a compelling argument to create an Anti-Bullying Club at the high school. They did some research and produced a 12-page slideshow highlighting why the school needed such a club.
It was fucking brilliant. And it could only have happened as the result of her sister being attacked.
The other thing I want to touch on is that the school engaged in their own investigation of the crime. We had nothing to do with it except to hand over evidence (aka stand up to the bullies.) As a result of their investigation, punishments were handed down to several students, and the punishments are still ongoing based on their continued investigation. We are neither privy to the punishments, nor the ones being punished. It was out of our hands. And frankly, I don’t even want to know. I don’t care.
Here’s where the revenge animal inside of me said, “Go for more.” Especially considering that so many angry people were contacting me pleading me to press charges.
Revenge wants blood. If you put yourself in my shoes, you’d know exactly what I’m talking about. Nobody fucks with family.
Meanwhile at school on Tuesday and Wednesday, Cozette continued to be bullied. And she continued to fight back.
“Go for more. Take them down.”
Then last night, after another unproductive work day and on the verge of absolute exhaustion from dealing with this fight that I didn’t ask for, it occurred to me to contact the pastor of the church we attend. I wasn’t feeling right about how revenge was my main motivator, and needed some help balancing the idea of revenge against the idea of justice. I’m not a monster, after all. But man, did the monster want justice.
So I contacted the pastor and arranged to meet this morning. She knew why.
When I awoke today I was again met with overwhelming support and even a few hate messages by people who I now felt bad for considering that they had no idea that they’re trackable and the police will soon have access to this information. Anyway, the post received thousands of visitors overnight and was continuing to be shared at a remarkable rate.
This thing resonated. And somehow, people were thanking me for shining a light on the problem. For standing up to bullies. For helping lead the charge against the scourge of bullying. Meanwhile I’m thinking … I’m just sharing an experience. I’m a writer. It’s what I do.
At 10 this morning I received a call from the vice principal at the high school. My first thought was that someone physically attacked Cozette.
“No sir. I just wanted you to know that the state authorities have gotten involved and are prepared to press charges and make arrests. The police are standing in my office right now.”
Revenge was dancing in my chest. “Fuck bad people. Go get ‘em. Set an example. This fight chose you not the other way around. All you’re doing is fighting back. They deserve everything they get. They attacked your child. They continue to attack her.”
But justice was tapping me on the shoulder, “Go to the church. Meet with the pastor.”
“Do I have any influence on whether the police press charges?” I asked the vice principal.
“No sir. This is the result of an independent investigation, the results of which warrant police action. These kids messed up.”
My mind raced. This could permanently affect these kids for a long time. Maybe follow them around forever. They’re just kids. Just kids. Just kids.
“But very bad kids,” Revenge whispered. “Kids who deserve this. Did you know that suicide from bullying is the #2 cause of death for teenagers, Jim? Fuck these kids. They need to pay.”
“Go to the church,” Justice said. “Ask him if you can delay police action.”
“Can you please check to see whether I have any influence on whether the police can stand down until I speak to someone about this?” I asked the vice principal.
“Sir, this is not about whether you can do anything. This is bigger than you.”
“Can you please ask anyway?”
About ten minutes later as I was driving to the church, I received a voicemail. “The police have granted your request and are standing by for a decision.”
I arrived at church and my friend, the pastor, ushered me into a part of the old building I’d never seen before. A tiny chapel with a few pews. We sat. I explained my dilemma about trying to balance two conflicting ideas in my mind and heart. And how revenge was winning. I explained how while it was unfortunate that the situation happened at all, we’re kind of lucky that it happened to us. To someone as strong as my daughter, and how she will not become another statistic.
And while I was dumping my problems in the little chapel, peace swept over me that I hadn’t felt in days. Revenge was settling down. Justice was taking charge.
Sure, there should be severe punishment for the crimes committed against my daughter. Yes, criminals regardless of age need to learn their lessons. But, they’re just kids. Just kids. Just kids. Their minds are still forming. They make bad decisions. I thought back to my own teenage years when I was a bad kid who did very bad things—I just never bullied anyone. And I never got caught for my stupid deeds. If I had, I could have easily served jail time.
And then I was struck with an epiphany.
My oldest daughter created an anti-bullying proposal at school which had only just been presented to the principal that morning via email. What if rather than press charges or see kids serve jail time for these mistakes (because let’s face it, bullying is a mistake), we instead enlist these kids to be part of the program to help end bullying at the school. To be part of the solution.
I presented the idea to the pastor. A warm smile stretched across her face. I thanked her for her time and left.
I got in the car and called my wife. When I told her about the solution, she began crying.
Three days ago I didn’t know anything about bullying, but, as the result of the attack on my daughter, I now know more than I imagined. Bullying is a scourge. Darkness. And too many children suffer from it. It’s time for it to end. And it’s not going to end by sending kids to jail.
These kids, the ones who attacked my daughter, have a great opportunity. An opportunity to learn valuable life lessons about forgiveness, humility, empathy, and how life continues to shift and change and you’ve got to be pliable to make it through.
I called the school official I’d spoken with earlier, and presenting the idea. He loved it.
I then called the state police who were standing by waiting for my call.
“On behalf of my family we would prefer that you did not press charges against the other students.”
“Ok. If that’s your decision, we’ll stand down,” the officer replied.
“Thank you.” I said.
“Pussy,” Revenge said.
“You did the right thing,” Justice said. “Everything is going to be ok.”
We have a meeting with the school principal tomorrow to discuss the events of this week, and to talk about our proposal.
It’s tragic that kids make stupid mistakes during one of the best times of their lives–setting themselves up for a painful path of indifference when it can be so different. They just don’t see life for what it is. They see their little worlds and the drama there and think that this is it. It’s not. Life is epic and amazing and scary and dangerous and trust me when I tell you that if your heart is wrong, you’ll suffer. For a long time.
Why do these things happen? I’m sure there are a lot of factors. But the core reason is that darkness is clever and it takes root in the hearts of the weak. We can do better. And it starts with light.
We didn’t pick this fight. It picked us. And considering that we are a strong family with a solid foundation, God decided that we needed to get involved with bullying. Evidently. And boy have we. Who’s to say that Cozette’s not going to be an inspiration for bullying victims for years to come? Who’s to say that Agatha isn’t going to help create an effective anti-bullying program that can be used at schools across the country? Who’s to say I’m not going to continue to learn about bullying and do my part to help shine light on this kind of darkness?
God’s no dummy. Nothing is insignificant.
I’m so fucking proud of my kids.
Everything is going to be ok.