THERE were lots of reasons high school sophomore Christopher Albert’s parents decided to press charges. The gash on his back needed nine stitches. The classmate they held responsible, Kevin Kelly, got only a six-day suspension. Plus Kevin got to play football the very night of the incident.
“It could have been so simple,” said Nancy Albert, Chris’ mother. Kevin’s father, who happens to be head of the local school board, could have apologised and offered to pay the hospital bills. But neighbours don’t do that much anymore, even in a town as small and rural as Stafford Springs, Connecticut, in the United States.
So one day last month, Kevin, 17, a senior, spent the morning in nearby Rockville Superior Court, crouching behind his father to duck his sudden and unwanted notoriety as a high school bully, that timeless menace Connecticut and a dozen other states have suddenly lost patience with and targeted in a series of new laws.
Meanwhile, Chris has turned up on TV, speaking alongside Miss America Erika Harold at a forum about how he was victimised and fought back – one of several testimonies in support of the new anti-bullying legislation.
The Connecticut law, which takes effect this month, stops short of actually criminalising bullying, instead requiring schools to set up a system to monitor and investigate all incidents. But the new intolerance of bullying behaviour has emboldened parents such as the Alberts to take the next step by pressing charges or suing the school.
The anti-bullying movement harbours a goal more ambitious than stopping the occasional locker room pummelling: to alter the “school climate,” as the Connecticut Bullying Task Force put it, meaning to eradicate the cliques and gossip and exclusion and you-can’t-play-on-my-team nastiness kids have always just suffered through.
But the Stafford High incident shows just how difficult that may be. What should have been like one of those high school movies where the underdog ultimately triumphs has turned out more like an after-school special on the complications and unintended consequences that result when adults micro-manage the high opera that is American teenage life.
And Chris’ role is to show the painfully high cost of upsetting the Darwinian natural order of things. Because the jury that counts – that is, the student body of Stafford High School – has clearly rendered its verdict: Kevin has acquired an aura of glamour as girls carry around news clippings about him and console him for his undeserved lot. Chris has become the school pariah.
The anti-bullying movement sprang from the 1999 shootings at Columbine High School in Colorado, when researchers began to examine more closely the potentially violent reactions of students who felt picked on.
Follow-up research concluded bullying was a “serious problem for all US youth,” according to a National Institute of Child Health and Human Development study, and a number of states took legislative action.
The new state law defines bullying as verbal as well as physical harassment. In Connecticut it’s any overt act with the “intent to ridicule, humiliate or intimidate the other student” repeatedly. In Oklahoma it’s actions that “insult
or demean.” New Jersey and Washington cover gestures “motivated by race, religion, gender” or disabilities. After Columbine, anti-bullying education became mandatory in many high schools and penalties much stricter.
Some education experts criticised both the research and the resulting laws for defining bullying as everything from a physical assault to spreading rumours and excluding someone from a game of catch.
Still, the movement is gaining momentum. In Pennsylvania, parents sued a school district because their son was repeatedly called a “queer” and became too scared to use the school bathroom.
In West Virginia, parents sued when bullies stole their son’s lunch money and urinated on his clothes. In Seattle, parents pressed charges when their daughter was shoved down the school bus stairs.
Nancy Albert thinks a lot about the fact that, by pressing charges, she might be harming a 17-year-old’s future. But she can’t not fight back on this one.
More and more, she and her husband, Russell, who grew up here, feel alienated from other parents.
“It’s like everyone thinks their kids are special and shouldn’t have to pay the price,” he said. “And believe me, they’re not doing them any favours.”
She knows she looks like an overanxious mother. But that role came unwanted, she said.
At five, Chris was diagnosed with a serious lung disease. For most of his life, Albert has had to show up at school every two or three hours and hook him up to a breathing machine.
About three years ago they discovered much of his problem was due to severe food allergies, and they could control the disease by strictly controlling his diet.
By fall, he felt well enough to do something besides play the GameBoy and watch TV, and the doctor said he could try football.
His parents were worried but excited. Their son couldn’t really keep up in practice but he loved it. He loved being part of a team.
He loved that he could go to a pizza party after a game, the first time he’d been out to dinner without his parents.
“I wasn’t very good so they would hit me harder at practice, evidently to teach me something,” Chris said. “But it was still fun, all considered.”
About mid-October, the dynamics seemed to shift. The team kept losing games. Chris, chubby, slow and soft, was starting to seem like a real charity case. The coach tried to convince him to become the manager, but Chris was stubborn. So his teammates took it upon themselves.
About a week before the locker room incident, “it stopped being much fun,” he recalled. The kids were “ragging on me constantly.” At one game they kicked mud and spat on him. Chris punched a quarterback in the face.
On Oct 28 last year, Albert dropped Chris and his sister at school at 7.05am and got home 20 minutes later.
A message from the nurse awaited her, saying there was an accident and Chris looked like he needed stitches.
Kevin and a friend were in the locker room when Chris came to drop off his uniform. Kevin is slim for a lineman, but strong enough to grab Chris in a bear hug, uncomfortably tight.
What happened next is disputed. By Chris’ account, Kevin’s friend said, “Chris needs air” – football-speak for an athletic cup over his face. Chris says Kevin then pushed him and he hit a concrete bench. Kevin says Chris backed up and tripped over his own backpack and hit the bench.
Chris got up in a daze and stumbled into the cafeteria. He felt something wet on his back and realised he was bleeding.
He went to the nurse’s office, and his mother picked him up and took him to the hospital, where he got nine stitches.
Albert knows what pressing charges and the subsequent publicity has done to her son’s life. At first, she wanted Kevin to apologise to Chris personally.
Then she decided he had to do it in front of the whole team. Lately, she’s been thinking the whole school. When Chris heard this latest plan, his chin sank on the kitchen table.
“Well, what would you like?” she asked.
“This to end.” – LAT-WP
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