School Bullies: How the Parents of One Child Are Fighting Back

Posted May 26, 2009 by

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What do you do when your child is bullied? It’s one of the toughest things for a child to go through…and one of the worst things a parent can ever experience. When it happened to my son, I felt like I was stuck on the sidelines, talking to teachers and giving Alex advice at home — and hoping that my child would make it through OK.

But recently, there have been too many stories about bullying incidents which have taken a deadly turn. It’s made me realize that the sidelines are not a safe place for a parent to be anymore.

Enter the parents of Ryan Howley. Ryan is a 6th Grader at Stroudsburg Junior High in Pennsylvania, and his parents are taking his bullying problem head-on in an unusual way.

Their once-outgoing child has been bullied for the past year because he walks on his toes. (It always seems so random. Sometimes it’s as if kids just pick someone for any reason at all, and designate him or her as the “target d’ jour”. ) Not only are students taunting this boy and calling him names, the bullying has become physical.

“I was pushed against the wall and then kicked repeatedly,” said Ryan, who used to love school, but now fears what each new day will bring. His mother, Valerie Robinson, said she “begged the school district to help.”  Said Valerie, “It was heartbreaking…. I can’t even convey how helpless and heartbreaking it is as a parent to witness that.”

She and the school ended up working together to arrange for an unusual school assembly. They asked the father of a Vermont boy who was bullied, and who then tragically committed suicide at the age of 13,  to come to their school and give a talk to students. The boy’s father, John Halligan, said that his son was bullied for years. His advice to the students in Pennsylvania?

“Speak up when you see bullying. Bystanders applying positive peer pressure to the few is our best hope.”

Will this change the minds of the bullies? Maybe not…but perhaps it will encourage those silent bystanders to speak up more often.

Ryan says he just hopes the lesson will make school a place he loves going to again.


Elisabeth Wilkins was the editor of Empowering Parents and the mother of an 10-year-old son. Her work has appeared in national and international publications, including Mothering, Motherhood (Singapore), Hausfrau, The Bad Mother Chronicles, and The Japan Times. Elisabeth holds a Masters in Fine Arts in Creative Writing from the University of Southern Maine.

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  1. Chris (Edit) Report


    The topic of bullying has no gone away and in fact has come to even a more public head since you originally wrote this post. The comments shared throughout this post provide very personal anecdotal evidence and advice as to how to take on the issue of bullying. Many times it seems there is no clear authority to hold responsibility. I’m glad to see so many many people connecting on this blog post and supporting one another.

    Increasingly we’re seeing the bullying that takes place on the school years permeating into online social networking sites, with term “cyberbullying” becoming the new nomenclature. In other article I’ve found on EP, authors have suggested adults in the school system (teachers, etc.) need to step in more often (fr Marc Ladin) and that parents need to instill confidence in their children to empower them to deal with the situation in a positive manner (fr Kristen Springer). Regardless of the tactic, the strategy here should be education for all, the better we understand the problem the more powerful we are to solve it in a definitive way.

    I wonder what your thoughts would be on the increasing incidence of cyberbullying and how that plays a role in school bullying matters?


  2. Elisabeth Wilkins, EP Editor (Edit) Report

    Mark, It’s kind of funny — as a parent, there are times when it’s hard to know what your reaction will be until something happens to your child. I’m pretty much the non-violent type, and only advocate using physical means to protect yourself as a last resort. In my son’s case, he was punched in the throat one too many times at school by another boy. (Both boys were only 5 at the time.) When my son told us that it kept happening even though we’d talked to his teachers, we knew we had to do something…and martial arts seemed like the best bet. We were lucky to find a wonderful teacher who does not advocate violence or aggression. Along with learning how to defend himself, my son has also become much more confident and responsible. Getting him involved with karate has probably been one of the best things we’ve done as parents…and the bullying problems have stopped. (Hopefully for good! But if it happens again, at least he knows how to defend himself.)

  3. Mark (Edit) Report

    I must admit that I’m surprised to hear someone else taking much the same approach to “self-defense against bullying” that I have. Kudos to you for teaching your son self defense (karate) which also teaches to use force only as a last resort. From years of training young men in the military, I know for a fact that your son will be a stronger, more confident grown man as a result of learning to empower himself.

  4. Carole Banks, Parental Support Line Advisor (Edit) Report

    Dear Lisa B:

    Perhaps your daughter has changed–which would be normal and happens as we mature. It may be that the girl that befriended her when she was down is most comfortable with befriending kids who are down. Perhaps, now that your daughter is stronger, they have grown apart as friends. There is nothing wrong with this–it’s just the way it is. It’s very normal for kids to grow and change and find things in common with someone else. Remind your daughter to again say to herself, “It’s not me”. Challenge her to be understanding, polite and kind to the girl who befriended her in the past. She was a good friend to her when she needed one. Encourage her to join Aikido or any other activity that appeals to her. Have her goal be to enjoy the activity, not to make friends. However, it is likely that friendships will develop between her and the other kids that share the same interests that she does.

  5. Lisa B (Edit) Report

    We have walked thru bullying. Our now 13 year old daughter went thru it in 6th grade. Oddly enough, this year we ran into another girl that was being bullied by the same girl – exact same M.O. Our daughter finally got that it wasn’t about her. Her exact words were “OMG! It’s not about me!” When she was being bullied, she was befriended by a girl who became her best (and only) friend – and truly helped our daughter get thru the school year. This year, the girl found a new best friend (with a new girl at school) and they have since excluded my daughter from the group. There didn’t seem to be any bullying or ugliness, but it was evident that the invitations stopped coming. We are still dealing with issues like rejection – and why did they do that. Our daughter’s asked to be involved in Aikido and a couple of other things but can’t seem to risk becoming friends with anyone new. Any suggestions??

  6. Louise Sanborn Report

    mcgmom: My heart goes out to you and your son. No child should ever be put in that position, and shame on the school for not protecting him. You were very wise to pull your kids out of there, too. That sent your children a powerful message — that you are there for them and will make sure they are safe.
    As for helping your child make friends, I would suggest finding something he likes to do and getting him involved in it, whether it’s an anime club, drawing, etc. I think it’s good for kids to be working on something and not have to talk if they don’t want to — activities kind of take the pressure off.

    Here are a few articles by James Lehman on kids and self-esteem that might give you some good tips. I’m not sure if that’s what is going on with your son, but there’s some great advice in here that I think might help. (Part II is especially helpful.)

    Good luck to you, and please let us know how it goes.

  7. Louise Sanborn Report

    Mark: We signed my son up for Karate for the very reason you mention here. We wanted to make sure that he could defend himself against anyone who was trying to hurt him, if we weren’t there to protect him and the teacher wasn’t watching. (At his former school, one child was constantly punching, kicking and hurting all the kids, and my son felt powerless to protect himself. I think the teachers, though they tried very hard and eventually made a lot of headway with this child, were also overwhelmed.) Karate has worked out very well — my son knows that he is never to use it unless he has told someone to stop and they are still trying to attack. Not only has it helped him defend himself, it has really empowered him to feel like he will be OK in any situation. I can’t say enough about sending kids to a good martial arts program!

  8. mcgmom (Edit) Report

    My 13 year-old son was the victim of bullying & was an easy target because of his many food & airborne allergies. He was at a private school where this happened several times. We did everything that James suggested with the teachers & administration, but received no help. He stood up for himself & was punished much more than the bullies, who were from wealthy families, & friends of the principal. NOTHING was ever done. We pulled our kids out of the school, but now my son is very shy socially and doesn’t want to make friends again in fear of being hurt & bullied again. How do we encourage him to try to trust kids & try to make friends?

  9. Mark (Edit) Report

    I have little doubt that my approach to bullying will not conform to most. My son’s school is one of those that wants to “ride the fence” and place the fault for any bullying incident on BOTH parties(the bully and the victim). Basically, they do nothing. But, I do know that the kid who runs to a teacher or principal that advocates a “your both at fault”, a “do nothing” or worse yet, a “let’s just all get along” approach….well, that poor kid is in for the bullying of a lifetime.

    So, because this is the approach my son’s school takes, I’ve made it very clear to them that I will not tolerate it nor will my son.

    Bullies are insecure cowards looking for attention. They seek out those they deem to be “easy targets” so as to boost their own diminished ego. If the school will not be pro-active and create a safe school environment, then unfortunately self-defense is all the kid has left available to him/her(or pack up and move to another school which equals “destruction of self-esteem”).

    My 13 yr old son is a very quiet, reserved, always on the honor roll student. Translation: “geek”,”easy target”.

    As I said earlier, I have little doubt that my approach to bullying, especially when it comes to schools that refuse to be pro-active and create a safe school environment, will probably not conform to most peoples attitudes on the subject. Having said that, I DO NOT ADVOCATE VIOLENCE! But, the bullying must stop!

    I am a former military instructor of 20 yrs and I have taught my son EXACTLY how to defend himself and how to stop the bullying. My advice to him has always been:

    FIRST: Tell the bully to STOP (very loud and assertively, get everyones attention. Make it known you’re being bullied).
    SECOND: If the bullying continues or becomes physical, TAKE ABSOLUTELY NO ACTION, BUT DEFINITELY STAND YOUR GROUND(even if pushed or hit) and again tell the bully to STOP (very loud and assertively). This will usually end the problem, but if not and it still continues, then hey, the bully has been warned twice, so;
    STRIKE THREE: Self-Defense…A hard two finger jab to the throat, will shut the bully up, guaranteed to make him back off and aware that he has picked on the wrong kid and the bullying will end.

    I have advised the school superintendent, the principal and the local police that my kid nor any other kid should ever be forced into a situation of self-defense in a school environment. And, if this ever happens to my son, a lawsuit is guaranteed. In other words, the school has been put on notice. The ball is in their court.

    PARENTS: Please, teach your child self-defense. The days of “turn the other cheek” or “ignore him/her and they’ll leave you alone” have long since passed.

  10. Louise Sanborn Report

    SDreiling and momof2boys: Thanks for your comments, and I’m sorry your kids’ schools have not been responsive. Sadly, so many parents report this kind of pushback from school administrators. It really burns me up, because in my opinion, a school’s number one responsibility is to make sure our kids are safe! So I definitely hear where you’re coming from. It seems strange to me that some schools seem so responsive, while others tend to just put it all back on the parents and the bullying victim.

    I’d like to include a helpful quote about bullying from James Lehman here, from a recent article he did in EP. I’ll include a link to the article at the end:

    “A word about bullying: if your child is being bullied, you need to be very proactive with teachers and the school. Have the school explain what they will do to protect your child from being a target of bullying. Physical and emotional safety is the school’s responsibility while that child is in their care. If your child is being excluded, let the teacher know you want them pulled into activities.

    “When parents came to my office with this problem, I’d say, ‘If your child is being bullied, call the teacher first. If they don’t cooperate with you, then call the principal. If they’re not responsive, call the superintendent. And let the superintendent tell the principal there’s a problem. Because once the principal hears it from the superintendent, he’s more likely to take action to solve the problem in an appropriate way. The principal might feel vulnerable that he didn’t know about it, and that will prompt him to further action.'”

    Link to article:

    And another one on bullying:

    I would love to hear from anyone else out there who is dealing with this problem — and how they are handling it.

  11. momof2boys (Edit) Report

    My 6th grader moved to his current school right before Thanksgiving. Since then, he has been the victim of bullying. One boy threatened to bring a gun to school and shoot my son in the face. The administration spoke with the boy’s mother but she provided an alibi for her son. The administrator I spoke with said there was no way it was this kid because he “comes from a good family”. They still have not punished any child for this, and have lied to me repeatedly about having my son search for any other possible culprit. I have gotten no where with anyone in the school or the district. The school is not always your ally.

  12. SDreiling (Edit) Report

    The schools and thier administration offer little in the way of a solution. After several meetings I expressed my disappointment in the system. Their “solution” to the problem is to teach my daughter to be a “good victom” (learn to ignore and isolate herself from the ones who torment her), rather than harsh disipline for those who engage in bullying.



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