n the late afternoon when I get home from work, the first thing I hear is singing coming from upstairs. It's my daughter Leia. Usually she's on Facebook, singing away. She picks up lyrics quickly, so she has a broad repertoire. It might be the Beatles or Brad Paisley or her current favorite, Lady Gaga:
I'm on the right track baby,
I was born to survive.
No matter black, white or beige
Chola or orient made,
I'm on the right track baby,
I was born to be brave.
Leia's voice is clear and beautiful. But there was a long patch during the past two years when our house was silent.
Two years ago my husband and I moved from Kansas City to a small rural area in Nebraska. It would involve major adjustments for each of us — but we felt it was worth it. It would allow our kids — Leia and Caleb — to spend time with their cousins and grandparents. We'd trade in our stressful urban environment for a lower-key life in the country. We were psyched.
Leia was heading into 7th grade — a year that can be dicey for anyone, but especially a new kid at school. My husband and I toured every middle school in the area and interviewed each principal. We asked about the girls who would be in Leia's class and researched the general reputation of the school. We eventually met a principal who proudly talked about his anti-bullying and harassment policy. We were impressed with his commitment to make sure that all the kids were safe and happy. We were confident that Leia would fit in nicely.
A couple of weeks into school Leia seemed very quiet. For weeks she insisted that everything was fine. One day she broke down crying and told me that some girls were calling her "slut," "whore," "bitch," and "fat" in classes and in the halls. One girl was the ringleader but others followed her lead.
I immediately started monitoring Leia's Facebook page. One day I noticed an email from the ringleader filled with foul language. I emailed a reply right away and said that I was Leia's mom. I told her I wanted to speak with her parents. She apologized immediately and begged me not to do this. Leia found out and pleaded with me, too. She said things would only get worse if I talked with the parents. So I backed down. I hoped that everything would blow over.
But, almost immediately, another girl dug her claws into Leia. This girl had been appointed as a special peer helper to assist new kids in making a smooth transition into school. What an irony! She called Leia derogatory names and often physically pushed her around. One afternoon Leia came home with her $8,000 insulin pump completely smashed. Leia has Type 1 diabetes and needs to wear a pump full-time. I immediately fired off a note to the school counselor. He called a meeting with Leia and this girl a few days later. He and the two girls sat down at a table. He showed them a "friendship contract" that he had drawn up. He asked Leia and the girl to sign their names to the paper and promise out loud to be friends. He then asked the girls to shake hands. What planet was he from? After this exercise, the girl intensified her belittling campaign and got more girls on the bandwagon. Leia's blood sugar started to spike over the 400 mark frequently. I started to panic. Why was her health deteriorating so rapidly? But then it hit me. Leia was eating high sugar foods and breaking all the rules in order to reach a dangerously high level in the mornings. If her levels peaked over 400, then she wasn't allowed to go to school. She was playing Russian roulette with her health in order to stay home.
prayed that things would settle down when Leia entered 8th grade. Maybe the girls would grow tired of harassing her. But right off the bat Leia's school email account was hacked. Sexually provocative emails in her name were sent to each classmate. When Leia found out she was devastated. She hid it from me at first and tried to handle it on her own. She approached one of her teachers and asked for help. The teacher said there was nothing that could be done because the principal wasn't sure who had initiated the hacking. When the principal finally narrowed his investigation to 3 girls, he simply reprimanded them verbally. And then the principal — the same person who had boasted about his school's zero tolerance for harassment and bullying — took the computer and password privileges away from Leia — the one who had been harassed.
Leia eventually told me what happened and said she wanted to move back to Missouri with her dad. She didn't want to leave her little brother, her stepfather or me — but that's how bad things had become. Leia saw no way out. She'd lost faith in her teachers. They were aware of what was going on, but they had failed time and time again to step in and correct it.
I was so upset that I came close to heading to the school right away. But I knew if I confronted the principal I'd get hysterical and then he'd dismiss me as some crazy mother. So I googled "sexual harassment and schools." That was how I discovered Title IX for the first time. I had no idea there was a law that protected kids like Leia from being harassed and bullied in school. I copied several articles and fact sheets about Title IX. I tracked down the school's handbook of rules and regulations and noted a couple of passages that specifically referred to this law. And then I wrote an email to the principal, listing incident after incident that Leia had experienced — with no teachers coming to her defense — and requesting a meeting to discuss the situation.
The principal and assistant principal met with me on a weekend, so no one at school would see me. I made Title IX the centerpiece of our discussion. I passed out copies of the fact sheets, which clearly described a school's responsibility to protect students from harassment and bullying. I asked the principal why he had punished Leia when her email account was hacked by other students. After a back and forth on this, it became clear that he didn't really know much about Title IX and didn't understand what his legal obligations were. This is probably the case for many schools and teachers.