These things just keep popping up in the news. A school has imposed unreasonable punishment on a student for what seems to be a minor, or an innocent, infraction. Or the authorities appear to have punished the victim instead of the offender. I've learned to be skeptical when I first hear of such cases, knowing the human tendency to highlight the outrageous while ignoring the ordinary. I subscribe to the theory that you never get the whole truth in the first report. This one, though, seems beyond doubt.
A nine-year-old kid in Buncombe County, N.C., liked to take to school a My Little Pony backpack, a fuzzy blue contraption with a picture of a cartoon pony on it. I've never heard of such a backpack before, but I'm told that it is very popular with some kids. Obviously not with some other kids at the elementary school the kid with the backpack attended. They teased, harassed, threatened, and in general made life miserable for young Grayson Bruce. He was bullied until he resisted going to school, although he made it clear that if he went, he still wanted to take his favorite backpack with him.
When apprised of the bullying, the guidance counselor allegedly advised Grayson's mother to hide the thing. Bringing it to school, she said, was just asking for trouble. There is no report that anybody in authority thought to tell the bullies to knock it off. The principal called Noreen Bruce, Grayson's mother, and told her to keep the backpack at home.
I understand that school faculty and administrators have a tough job, and the desire to tamp down discord the quickest way possible must sometimes outweigh common sense. But it is beyond my comprehension that the school, in a classic example of blaming the victim, would require a child to do what the bullying classmates wanted, in order to avoid trouble. It's sickening when adult authority demonstrates to children that they must conform to the wishes of their peers, color inside the lines, go along to get along. That's the clear lesson this school presented. And the offending parties learned that they could get their way by bullying.
This incident reminded me of a situation in the Army many years back. An unhappy parent reported, and an investigation proved the report to be correct, that a young officer in command of troops had been abusing his soldiers by committing egregious violations of regulations and of common sense. He'd screamed, cursed, even pulled a pistol, cocked it, and threatened to shoot anybody who moved in ranks. He'd made a sick soldier sit down in a chair in front of a formation and ridiculed him for being a weakling. There were many other similar incidents. But he'd produced outstanding results as a commander, and evidently his superiors didn't choose to rock the boat by looking below the surface to see how he was achieving those results. When his transgressions came to light, senior in his chain of command claimed he'd been counseled and had seen the error of his ways. He was about to be sent to a school that would enhance the likelihood of his continuing to move rapidly up the ladder. Those of us reviewing the investigation, though, thought he should be firmly reined in, starting with being pulled off orders for the school. His chain of command resisted. A letter overriding their resistance was taken up to the Vice Chief of Staff of the Army for his signature, if he agreed. The general read the letter and signed it immediately, stating as he did so, "Why, yes, we must stop him now. He's been making 200 soldiers miserable. If we do nothing, in a few years he'll be making 600 miserable." I'm sure the officer's career was ended. I consider that a good thing. And the right lesson was sent to others.
Grayson Bruce's mother has a flair for publicity, and she has forced the Buncombe County school officials to reconsider. They say the earlier ruling was not intended to blame Grayson. They say he can bring his backpack to school, reinforcing what must be a streak of steel in the spine of a small kid. They say they will initiate a stringent anti-bullying program. They say everything is going to be fine going forward.
We'll see. Sometimes you don't get the whole truth in the final report, either.
Robert B. Simpson, a 28-year Infantry veteran who retired as a colonel at Fort Benning, is the author of "Through the Dark Waters: Searching for Hope and Courage."