Wednesday, April 19, 2017

The Principal Lied As Peyton Died

"Those who can, do. Those who can't, teach.  Those who can't teach, counsel.  
Those who  can't counsel, administrate."- Matt Groenig, School Is Hell

On October 8, 2014, my 13 year old son came home from his day of classes at Forbes Middle School in Georgetown, Texas, went to his room and hung himself.  Five days later on October 13th, he passed away from his injuries. Peyton's suicide was not the result of any one thing, but a lethal combination of many.  He had been bullied relentlessly throughout his time in school.  He had ADHD which made it hard for him to concentrate in class.  He also dealt with depression and anxiety.  All of this combined made it difficult for him to cope with life.

The day before he hung himself, Peyton had reported another student at the school for harassing him. Peyton was sitting in the cafeteria before school and reading a book, allegedly (legal word there), a student had approached Peyton and told him that he was stupid for reading.  Peyton, never one to back down from an argument refused to give in, and was told that he was stupid for going to church and believing in Christ.  After having enough of this less than civil discourse, Peyton went to the office to report this student. Unfortunately, he was relatively new to the school, and (supposedly) because of the angles of the cameras in the cafeteria, the administration told Peyton that they were not able to identify the student in question.  For a student that had been harassed by others for everything from his red hair to his teeth, this event helped put him over the top.

During the five days that Peyton battled for his life, I sat next to his bed in the hospital wanting to find the student who harassed him, drag him out of class, and proceed to kick his ass from one end of the school to the other, and then back again.  After Peyton's death, but before his funeral, I had several days alone to think about the situation.  I thought about the student and if he knew he had played a role in my son's death, and if he knew, how was he dealing with it?  In the "Let's pretend suicide only happens in other places" world of public education, there was a good chance this child, if unknown, could  be wandering the halls with the soul crushing guilt of being responsible for the death of another human being.  After the funeral, I contacted Peyton's principal asking if they had identified the student that had harassed Peyton.  My hope was that they had, and were getting him the help that he would need in the upcoming days, weeks, and months.  Sadly, I was told no, as was Peyton's mother when she went in to collect his belongings.

For the last two and a half years, I, as well as Peyton's mother, have worried about this anonymous child.  She actually works in the high school that child would be attending.  Imagine her telling the class about Peyton and what happened to him, while that child sat in the class.  You would think that Peyton's principal would tell the high school principal about this student, but based upon what I discovered, it doesn't seem like that would have happened.  

One night, as I was sitting in my Survivors of Suicide meeting, we began talking about how our loved one's death were handled by the police and other authorities.  Some of the members talked about how they have never looked at the coroner's report of the death certificate even though they have had them for several years.  I began to think.  I had the death certificate from Travis County that clearly listed the cause of death as suicide, but I had never seen the police report.  The more I thought about it, the more I wanted to see the report, so I went online and requested a copy of the report from the Georgetown Police Department.  

Once my request was received, I was contacted by a representative of the police who questioned whether I really wanted to see this.  Although I knew it would be painful, I had to see it, so it was eventually emailed to me.  It showed up in my email in the morning.  I was alone in the coaches office. I downloaded the file to my laptop, nervously opened it and began to read.  

The report was very clinical, unbiased and straightforward.  As I went from page to page, I didn't discover any new revelations until I got to page 8 of the report.  It was there that the narrative took a dramatic turn.  As I stated before, both Peyton's mother and I were under the impression that the student who harassed Peyton had never been found, but according to the investigator, "[the principal] stated that he was able to identify the student and spoke with him about the incident. [the principal] stated that the child claimed that he was not making fun of Peyton`s religion and that they were having a discussion about religion that turned into an argument but they both walked away from the discussion."  

I was stunned, flabbergasted, flummoxed.  I sat there staring at the screen reading that line over and over hoping that I had read it wrong.  I even called Peyton's mother to check and make sure that the principal had told us the same thing, that we had both been told by the principal that he had never identified the child in question.  Now I know we had both been lied to by the very person that we had entrusted with our son.  The person that was supposed to act in the best interest of my son, and every other child that walked through the doors of that school, was nothing more than a lying sack of sh*t.  A man so unwilling to risk his job or show a backbone that he took path of least resistance by taking the word of the bully over the student that had been victimized. Because after all, it was easier to close the door and put this whole ugly incident behind him.

I was, and still am, pissed off.  How could this a$$hole allow us to believe a lie all this time?  Yes, I wanted to kick his ass for lying to me, for allowing me to suffer for this time.  I wanted to take legal action against him and the district for this and make them pay out the ass for what they had done to us, but the statute of limitations had expired.  I wanted to call the district superintendent to let him know what kind of person they had working for them, but by this time, the principal had retired, so once again, there was nothing I could do.  

So that brings me to the present.  I am left with no discourse except to tell Peyton's story, and to help others learn from my story.  To those out there whose children are being bullied and harassed at school, hold the administrators accountable.  Too often I have heard stories of school districts that are more concerned with public perception than the truth.  It is easier to shame and blame the victim than to hold the guilty accountable.  Because bullying can carry criminal charges, administrators and districts try their best not to present it as bullying so that it doesn't show up on a police blotter, and the public perception of the school and the district are not tarnished.  

In my home state of Texas, the law states, "Texas Educ. Code § 37.001 Texas defines bullying as any written, verbal or physical act that physically harms a student or damages a student's property, or that creates an intimidating, threatening or abusive educational environment." Further more, according to Sec. 37.0832. BULLYING PREVENTION POLICIES AND PROCEDURES. (a) In this section, "bullying" means, subject to Subsection (b), engaging in written or verbal expression, expression through electronic means, or physical conduct that occurs on school property, at a school-sponsored or school-related activity, or in a vehicle operated by the district and that:
(1) has the effect or will have the effect of physically harming a student, damaging a student's property, or placing a student in reasonable fear of harm to the student's person or of damage to the student's property; or (2) is sufficiently severe, persistent, and pervasive enough that the action or threat creates an intimidating, threatening, or abusive educational environment for a student.
(b) Conduct described by Subsection (a) is considered bullying if that conduct: (1) exploits an imbalance of power between the student perpetrator and the student victim through written or verbal expression or physical conduct; and (2) interferes with a student's education or substantially disrupts the operation of a school.

Obviously Peyton felt strongly enough that what had happened that day fit the parameters of bullying and harrassment that he felt it was necessary to turn to the principal hoping that he would be able to escape the harassment and bullying that had followed him from school to school.  Unfortunately, he turned to a man at the end of his career that, in my opinion, was just hanging on for his retirement by avoiding conflict and doing as little to rock the boat as possible. A man willing to take the word of a child that purposely harrassed a total stranger in the cafeteria for reading a book.  This was a man who regarded my son's death as an inconvenience such as one would regard a mosquito in the bedroom at night. 

One of the main criticisms of the bullying law in Texas was by administrators claiming that it would create more paper work for them, and perhaps he didn't relish the thought of actually having to his job that day.  Sadly, when the law was enacted in 2011, it gave each district the latitude to enact their own code provided it aligned with state standards,  Some schools went above and beyond, while others did the bare minimum necessary to get by, and even though they had adopted policies, they chose, and still choose, to avoid enforcing them at all costs.  

As the school year begins to wind down, I can't help but think about all the students who have had to endure bullying day after day.  How many of them turned to the people that were supposed to help them in a time of need only to be ignored or told its just part of being a kid?  How many students faked illness or just skipped to avoid yet another day of name calling, punching, or tripping?  How many parents have pulled their children out of schools because it was easier for the administration to shame the victim than follow the law?  How many parents had to bury their child because they could no longer deal with the idea of yet another day of abuse?  How many administrators continue to lead ineffectively, yet still keep their job because they are able to produce high test scores and low police reports?  `How many more families will have their lives destroyed because it meant too much paper work to actually deal with the real problem?  If the answer is even one, then that is too damn many. 

Author's Note:  Last night, after getting home from my Survivors of Suicide Meeting, I was putting my keys and wallet on my dresser, and I looked at  Peyton's urn sitting in front of me. As I am staring at the only remnant of my son, there is a former principal out there enjoying his retirement. He either lied to grieving parents or the police to save his ass and preserve his retirement.  I hope his sleep was better than mine.