Like so many other families around the country 13-year-old Alicyn and her mother Annise Mabry are busy keeping up with the demands of the school year.
However, instead of preparing to go to a local school, Ali takes classes at home. Instead of a classroom, she logs onto her laptop for online lessons. Instead of a teacher, her mom is her instructor.
“It’s a lot better, it’s a lot more fun and it really brings out a lot of the things I found enjoyable in school,” says Ali, decked out in a hot pink Hello Kitty T-shirt, rows of colorful plastic bracelets dangle from both of her arms.
She used to attend a public middle school near their Conyers, Ga. home just outside of Atlanta, but this year for 8th grade, she’s relying on the online Georgia Cyber Academy for her curriculum.
Ali and her mother say excessive bullying from classmates on and off school grounds brought on Ali’s transition out of a traditional school.
“They were just really mean, the pushing, the shoving, hitting, slapping. Basically it was just pretty much assault every day,” she says. “With girls it was hair, my face, the way I dressed, the way I looked. The way I talked. Things that you really can’t help. I felt like that was my only reason for coming to school; just to be pushed around.”
Ali says as much as she loved learning, it was a struggle every day.
“I was a straight-A student, and I still was able to maintain straight A’s and still maintain on honor roll, but I was really considering dropping out.”
In addition to traditional bullying, texting and social media such as Facebook and Twitter, she claims, made her predicament worse.
“One could be in the classroom, two was Facebook, three was the bus and then four was the text messages,” she says, a dismayed look on her face. “And then it would go back to one. And it would get worse every time that you got back to one.”
Ali claims that she reported the incidents to her teachers and counselors and they did nothing. Her mom says ultimately it was too much for her daughter to take.
“Another suspension came when another student had been taunting her and hit her repeatedly with a book in the presence of a teacher and the teacher did nothing to intervene,” says Mabry of her daughter. “And Ali got mad, and she got tired of being hit, and she hit back. And that resulted into a two-day suspension.”
Ali says no adults intervened.
“They never did anything, never said anything; they never reported it, never even stepped in,” she says. “I was in and out of the counselors office frequently; more frequently than most students. I even had appointments there weekly.”
The incidents took their toll. At times she felt the bathroom was her only refuge.
“I went to the bathroom to eat lunch,” she says, a tinge of sadness in her voice.
“Actually what I would do is I would take my binder to lunch. I would go to the bathroom. I would leave my binder in the bathroom intentionally. And then I would come back and do my work and everything else because I couldn’t sit at the lunch table because kids were so mean.”
She says the longer the bullying went on, the more she spiraled down.
“My self-esteem just dropped,” she says. “When I tried to get it up, it was like trying to throw paper in the air and expecting to catch it.”
Her mother says she knew something had to be done and she realized it was up to her to take action.
“When she got suspended the third time is when I finally said, ‘something has to change,’” says Mabry. “‘I can’t keep sending her through this.’ Ali was biting the skin off of her hands [because she was so stressed out].”
Decatur (Ga.) High School Counselor Ken Jackson says extreme examples like Ali describes are increasingly more common. He sees about two serious cases a year.
“Bullying by definition means that there’s some kind of harm, it’s repeated and there is a power difference,” he says. “Somebody has social, physical power over someone else.”
He says students who don’t fit neatly into a student body’s established social structure are often targeted.
“I do think some of it is that [the bullies] feel that they have social permission to pick on some types of students,” he says. “Some kinds of student [behaviors] are seen as less acceptable. Likewise, students in these groups may feel the social stigma and not feel they can go anywhere for help.”
The number of bullying incidents that became more public in the past year was an impetus for changing the bullying law, he says. Still Jackson calls the new Georgia law a step in the right direction, but cautions that it is not a cure-all for the bullying issue.
“But we also know that simply establishing a law does not fully change a climate, a behavior in a person or a school,” says Jackson. “Setting a climate in which the expectation of what is good and appropriate behavior, what is inappropriate behavior responses to bullying is a necessary thing.”
Mabry feels not enough was done to protect her daughter. The former teacher resigned from her job as a dean at Devry University for medical reasons, then opted to home school her daughter for the past year. The Georgia Cyber Academy, she says, has been a great fit.
“And the beautiful thing about the cyber academy is that it falls under the charter school umbrella and it’s free for all Georgia students,” she says. “They ship your books. If your student does not have a computer they give you the computer. All of the supplies you need to go to school, they UPS to you. The only thing is it requires someone to be present for five hours a day to monitor the learning.”
Two years ago, the state Legislature in Georgia passed a law addressing bullying. The measure updated an existing measure from the 1980 and finally went into effect this summer. Among other things, the law:
• Defines bullying more broadly than before.
• Requires local school systems to adopt policies on dealing with bullying.
• Expands the policies to include elementary school students, particularly kindergarten.
• Requires parents to be notified any time their child is bullied or bullies someone else.
• Mandates students who bully in grades six through 12 be placed in an alternative school after the third offense.
Mother and daughter welcome Georgia’s new bullying law, but both have some concerns. They’re particularly bothered by the fact that three consecutive incidents by the same person are required for the bully to be removed from the school.
“What if the three separate incidents don’t come from one single person,” asks Mabry. “You know, then again you’re back at the first square of where you’re starting over and over and over again trying to establish three instances with one person. You know that’s the challenge that we had.”
“I think they’ve done pretty good,” says Ali of the Georgia Legislature. “And at least they made it a lot more enforceable, but at the same time, I think that they should train the [school resource] officers a little better everywhere. They should have federal required training to deal with it.”
Mabry says she’s proud that Georgia has taken action.
“The Georgia bullying law had not been revised since 1980, so I think it’s a positive that at least Georgia was proactive,” she says. Right now there are only 34 states that have cyber bullying, cyber terrorism and cyber stalking laws; fortunately Georgia has all three.”
Counselor Jackson is optimistic that the law will have a positive effect.
“For some [school] systems that weren’t doing this before; it gives them the direction for really for giving some support for students and not letting things disappear and slide,” he says. “And this then gives families a resource for being able to go and say this should not be. It gives staff members and administrators within a school the ability to say we do need to deal with this.”
The experience has inspired Mabry to take on the role of advocate. When she speaks to local organizations about bullying she urges parents to learn their rights.
“Most importantly never let anyone tell you ‘no’ who doesn’t have the power to say ‘yes’,” she says. “So the parents just have to keep knocking on doors, because somebody somewhere is going to say ‘yes.’”
She has even opened up her home to other Cyber Academy students whose parents have to work.
As for Ali, she says working one-on-one with mom every day is not so bad.
“I love my mom; she’s the best teacher ever,” she says. “And honestly; even though we might have our moments, she’s always there. And that’s the cool part.”