This story is totally enraging. It’s almost funny but it’s heart-breaking. It’s the story about a school which overtly sanctions bullying and punishes the student who gets bullied; a school which condones violence but prohibits the use of a My Little Pony bag. It’s a story of official and institutionalized victim-blaming, gender-policing, cowardice and cruelty.
Nine year-old Grayson Bruce, of North Carolina, wore a backpack with a character from his favorite TV show, My Little Pony, a children’s cartoon. For that, Grayson was bullied, emotionally and physically. The eloquent and adorable Grayson told his local ABC affiliate, “They’re taking it a little too far, with punching me, pushing me down, calling me horrible names, stuff that really shouldn’t happen.” But don’t worry! According to a school spokesperson, ”an initial step was taken to immediately address a situation that had created a disruption in the classroom. Buncombe County Schools takes bullying very seriously, and we will continue to take steps to resolve this issue.” So, what did the school do about it? Protect Grayson? Punish or speak to the bullies about why what they did was hurtful? No. They punished Grayson and protected the bullies. You see, it’s Grayson, and not the kids who punched him over a backpack choice, who are the problem. So, the school responded to the incident by prohibiting Grayson from bringing the My Little Pony bag to school. The bag, according to the school, is a “trigger for bullying.”
In other words, the blame for the disruptive behavior falls on Grayson. Grayson is inviting bullying by daring to use a bag from a TV show that the bullies consider to be a show for girls. He is disrupting gender norms, not that the school would ever use any language like that. And the school doesn’t want to disrupt the bullying because that would require some real work on their part and because the bullying, though abusive, respects gender norms. The school is more comfortable with physical and emotional attacks than it is with behavior it perceives as gender-non-conforming. Grayson’s behavior is deemed abnormal and is responsible for inviting the normal punitive response of bullying.
Does this sound familiar? One can’t help but hear the ultimate rape culture refrain translated into the realm of bullying: “If he didn’t want to get bullied, he shouldn’t have worn that backpack…Boys will be boys…He was asking for it.”
The echo of victim-blaming and rape culture is certainly heard by Grayson’s mom, who called out the school for its reprehensible response: “Saying a lunchbox is a trigger for bullying, is like saying a short skirt is a trigger for rape. It’s flawed logic, it doesn’t make any sense.”
Luckily, Grayson’s story has served as a “trigger” for support. A friend made him a Facebook page, which 21,000 people have liked and where hundreds of people have left messages of support and encouragement. It is inspiring to see this reaction. But it in no way absolves the school.
Grayson has a supportive network of friends and family, in real life and online. But not every child who is bullied survives. A study released earlier this month, in fact, found that kids who are bullied are twice as likely to think about and attempt suicide than their non-bullied peers. The story of 11-year-old Michael Morones, for example, demonstrates just how dangerous school apathy is. Michael, also of North Carolina, was also teased and bullied over his love of My Little Pony. He attempted suicide and had unknowable brain damage. Luckily, he is conscious and recovering. For bullying prevention expert Nancy Mullin, the school’s lack of response to Michael’s bullying was a contributing factor in his attempted suicide. Though Michael’s parents were supportive of his interests, “The missing piece here is what the school is doing about this.”
Schools fail their students (both the victims and perpetrators of bullying) and their communities when they shift the blame onto victims, and turn a blind eye to the root causes of bullying.