Column By Danielle Hargrove Albert

   One of the best things I have experienced while living here in Waterbury is the amount of diversity that exists. Being a mother, I believe we should be raising our children to embrace and learn from the differences that exist in one another. When your child interacts with other children who are different from them, those are opportunities for growth, tolerance and respect. Sadly, too often they are overshadowed with bias and antipathy. We can all take part in celebrating diversity at a beautiful event like “The Gathering”.  However when it comes down to basic school days, respectful interactions are not happening. Personal bias and reactive behaviors are manifesting themselves in the form of bullying.

   I cannot understand what it feels like to be bullied as a Muslim, an individual who is African American, a child who is overweight, in a wheelchair or because I may be trying to figure out if I am transgender. What I can relate to was the torment that I lived with throughout my Middle School years. I was bullied before “bullying” was even a word. My bully was a girl named Tracey who I will never forget, even though over 30 years has passed. When bullying and its repercussions are cutting so deeply and wounding our children so intensely. The ripple effect extending so far that it has begun to destroy childhoods. Bullying is taking lives on both sides.

   There are two sides to this story.  Each having a cause and effect yet interconnected with each other. I am trying to find a balance and understanding as I battle with both sides of bullying. As a woman now in her 40s who was bullied, as a mother trying to raise three strong, confident and empathetic daughters, and as a member of the community that views the violence, hatred and potential repercussions on our children. And most simply as person who believes in rules, structure and appropriate consequences for actions.

   We all are aware of the mass shootings, bomb threats, lock downs and acts of violence that our children are exposed to. Including the newest, “SNAPCHAT”, that actually allows children to film video and post acts of bullying and violence on social media. Imagine, being able to watch children threaten, belittle and in some cases physically assault each other. Many of these cases are a direct result of a string of other ongoing situations that finally just reach a breaking point.

   When reading or hearing about any act of violence including those in our own Waterbury schools, my immediate reaction is always “thank God my girls weren’t involved”.  Sadly though, I feel that a sense of complacency exists.   We can only say for so long, “that won’t happen in Waterbury”. We can “never say never” because “it” is happening.  The bomb threats are happening, the weapons are being brought to school right under our noses, lockdowns and shelter in place drills are occurring. What should be kept in mind is if things keep going as they have been it’s only a matter of time before an act of violence will touch all of us. If the worst incident of school violence happened 20 minutes to our west, it “can” happen in Waterbury.

   A phrase used often in our home is “be aware of your surroundings”- that specifically applies to school days. Should any parent have to worry as I do about basic safety? There should be a degree of trust when our children go to school; that teachers and administrators will keep our children protected and safe. Trust that teachers are doing what is in the best interest of our children. There should be confidence that administration will follow a uniform set of policy and procedures when children and families come forward with concerns and issues. Parents need reassurance that the Waterbury School System is going to be part of the solutions and that any problem that leads to the destruction of the health, well-being or self-esteem of our children will be met with consequences. Several years ago I had a principal tell me, “I cannot guarantee you anything, but I can tell you that we have all of the resources in place to avoid an unsafe situation”. However, after too much disappointment we are finding that “resources in place” is not the case.

   Instead, the violence and bullying are present and becoming more commonplace.  It is not the job of the Waterbury school system to raise our children, but it is their responsibility to protect my children while they are in its care. The problem lies in the fact that there has been an obvious lack of following protocol and procedures. That is evident in the families that come to the Board of Education podium, speak out on social media and contact their children’s schools and community advocates for help. If there was a system of oversight, many of these cases would not reach a boiling point. In a recent incident at Regan School a weapon was brought to school and an article in  the Rep-Am reported staff failed to follow procedure. If a child or family was sending out signals for help and those warning signs were ignored or missed, shame on the school, administration and lack of support services. There should be consequences for city staff not doing their jobs just as there are consequences for our children who do not adhere to proper expectations. Where is the oversight from central office on the staff that is in some cases part of the bullying problem? 

   Many families have come forward in an attempt to address these issues. What are they supposed to do when they follow proper protocol within the schools only to find themselves at the BOE podium where still nothing gets resolved? How long are parents supposed to watch their children be tormented before they tell them to stick up for themselves; only to then be disciplined? Is that teaching our children “indirectly” that bullying is an excuse for violence? I was tormented for 3 years. Tracey spit and put gum in my hair, stepped on my heels, called me names, made fun of my glasses and knocked books out of my hands. However, I never once thought about causing harm to that girl.

   We have children bullying each other, killing themselves for unimaginable reasons, and being murdered in cars. I don’t believe any parent supports violence as an acceptable way to deal with bullying; but what happens when the torment doesn’t stop and the people that should be protecting our children, are not? There is something leading our children to think that violence is the solution and we as a community need to get to the bottom of it.

   There needs to be consequences for a student who puts another child or staff member in danger. What happens if children have access to weapons at home and they feel threatened? We’ve seen the repercussions. Are the consequences different depending on the race or minority status of the child? In other cases those who should have been punished are not and the victim ends up taking the brunt. If a student brings a weapon to school – knife, rock or gun – and has intentions to use it, there should be appropriate consequences. Weapons in school is unacceptable. The punishment should be uniform and fit the crime, not the race, gender or minority of the child. Allowing children back into the school creates an unsafe environment for students and staff. If the city shows there are no consequences a message is being sent that those behaviors are tolerable. It’s giving our kids ideas that it’s ok to “get even”. What if the knife recently brought to Regan was a gun? And why is it okay for some of our teachers to work in fear?

   We have staff that cares about our children, but teachers cannot do this alone. There is a perception of not caring, but could it simply be the fact that some schools are running on the bare bones of social service support? I have personally gone to the podium and advocated for solutions that include more social service support, full time counselors, social workers and psychologists in every school. We shouldn’t be giving up our social workers to step in for interim VP positions as was the case at Gilmartin. Schools require more direct hands on support in the form of paraprofessionals, for school resource officers in all of our Pre-k to 8s. As cases of violence increase, even an investment in metal detectors would provide a degree of breathing room for staff and parents alike. We will hear the familiar refrain of excuses about money. Yet our Board of Education passes $25,000 consultant fees and without the blink of an eye, and votes to increase the salary range for a superintendent we do not yet have.

   We have all these community tools available; but seminars, workshops at the Silas Bronson Library and forums only draw the parents who are already advocating for the safety of their children. It does nothing to address the problem from the inside. The city brought in the Wingman program. We used it at Gilmartin and it started out with a bang last year, but like everything else, slowly faded. Why are we not teaching our students conflict resolution? Children must feel good about themselves and that needs to be nurtured. If it is not available at home the community is the next option. Our kids must have outside outlets that will help build their confidence, offer mental health support, and even teach basic life skills. We have so many support mechanisms working within the city I do not understand why the BOE does not tap into them. Programs like SAVE GIRLS ON FYER and the UNGROUP Society have the capacity to change our children’s lives. Everything is at our fingertips but until there is collaboration nothing changes.

   This city is a preacher of parent engagement; yet where has everyone been besides Facebook? Come to the meetings, voice concerns to your community leaders because parents need to advocate for the safety and well-being of their own children. If I simply stopped at the teacher or principal I would have gotten nowhere with issues involving my children or the school district. We are our children’s advocates and it is our job to fight for them. Parents have the power to make things better for their children.

   Neither side to this story owns the blame. This is a system failure and there are consequences for actions whether you are a child or not. That is a basic life skill learned at home. Sadly, we see the lack of respect for individuals and intolerance of differences in the form of bullying. Bullying is a form of violence that crosses every gender and racial line; but bullying is not an excuse for violence. There has to be a way to find the balance and cooperation within this community. For our children who just want it to stop and don’t know who to go to we have to give them somewhere to go. And get systems in place that help our children realize that reacting to a behavior is often times just as volatile as a threatening behavior.

   Whether it be a weapon or a person’s words, pain is pain. One mechanism is just as dangerous as the other. Sometimes all we need is sound logic. Until this collaboration takes place; what school officials are indirectly telling us is, “operation status quo”, until something serious happens.

   Words of my own mother come to mind; “Dan, it’s a different world than when I was young; if you think you’re prepared for kids… you have no idea, the worry never stops”.

    She was right.