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When Schools Intervene In Children's Friendships

I'm scrolling my Facebook newsfeed this morning, delaying getting out of bed, when I see a headline that makes my blood boil:

As a mom who is worried about inclusion, tolerance and respect, I can immediately empathize with the idea of not wanting children to be left out of foursquare on the playground. As someone who was teased, picked on and called horrible names all through elementary schools, I know how much it hurts to be on the outside of the popular kids club. I remember very well the mean tricks the girls would play on me and the things they would say or get me to do by pretending to be my friend, only to mock me for it and humiliate me the next second. I imagine these school educators and policymakers grew up with childhoods like mine: always the last picked for any game or sport, only getting invited to birthday parties when no one else was available and only if it meant a mean trick could be played on you, and getting the bland valentines - if any - every February 14. I guess instead of building themselves up one step at a time and ensuring they raise children with a strong sense of self, these educators are taking the approach of forcing everyone to treat others the way they wished they'd been treated. It's a nice idea. But as the article mentioned, "having that one, true-blue friend in childhood is essential for healthy mental and emotional development in adulthood. In a paper published in the journal 'Childhood Development,' researchers found that subjects who had higher-quality close friendships as a teen tended to have lower social anxiety, an increased sense of self-worth and fewer symptoms of depression by age 25. In fact, another study showed that people who searched for fewer, yet closer friendships were happier than those (who) considered themselves popular. Psychologist Tim Kasser discovered that those who wanted popularity over close relationships were less healthy, and often more depressed. However, people who found a best friend experienced the opposite effect. Oh interesting! While reading this, I wondered what happened to those kids in the popular club. I did a quick Facebook search for the first one. The meanest one. The one I thought was so amazing and so beautiful and was going to "have it all." Well, she still lives in our old hometown. Like me, it appears she's been married, divorced, remarried and that seems pretty normal. She has cute children. In fact, everything about her was completely normal in the 10 seconds I looked at her public information on Facebook. She didn't go out and save the world, find a cure for cancer or make a Hollywood movie. I wondered if all the mean girls were completely normal 20 years later so I looked up one more. She looks about the same as I remembered. Married with children. Sells some kind of health supplement through an MLM. So 20 years later, the girl who had one close friend at a time (me) and who still can count the number of "best friends" on one hand, turned out to be pretty normal, too. But that isn't the case for everyone who has been incredibly bullied. We've seen the upsetting news articles about cyberbullying and the number of teens taking their own lives due to the treatment they receive from their peers. It makes sense that educators want to do something - anything! But there's a very big problem with this new approach. They're forcing victims to hang out with their bullies. My son attended Oakridge Elementary School and its after-school program in Arlington, Virginia, two years ago. His teacher was much like these ones in the article. She wanted to be sure no one was left out and she loved talking about her politics and her love for Hillary Clinton to all the first graders. I knew right away this teacher was crossing the line but I didn't know how far it would go until a few months into the school year. The first time my son was assaulted in school, he told a teacher. Like many assaults that took place that year, I didn't receive phone calls from the school while at work, instead I would hear about it that evening from my son. When he fell off the playground and landed on his back and head, I was not called and I was not told to watch for a possible concussion. Assault after assault would occur and the school gave the other children a missed recess as punishment and it was only after I demanded an investigation each time that they even discovered that my son's telling of the incidents was true. Still, they did nothing. Not even after I had to take him to the ER. I filed a police report. The officer said the parents refused to cooperate so there was nothing more they could do. I spoke to the district office and they assured me they would get involved. Nothing. And then I found out my son was being FORCED to play with these children during recess. The school and teacher had a policy that "if someone wants to play with you, you can't tell them no." So the children who held my son down on the playground and choked him the week before, he was forced to play with later on. The teacher also had a policy that if something happened at recess, you had to tell right away or you couldn't say anything at all. So when my son stopped telling the recess teacher, because she never did anything about it, he was told he couldn't tell his trusted teacher after lunch "because we don't want children talking about each other behind their backs." Oakridge Elementary essentially has a 15-minute statute of limitations on victims. My son was "sick" at least once a week throughout the year. He often went to work with me instead or I would be called to pick him up at lunch because he was "sick" (dreaded going to a certain class with a certain child). Multiple meetings with myself and the teacher, principal, vice-principal and schools counselor, with my deployed husband staying awake until 2 a.m. his time to be on the phone) yielded no changes. I then started receiving notices in the mail and emails that if my son missed any more days, I could be arrested.

Knowing I could be arrested for pulling him out of school, I did so anyway and did my best to homeschool the rest of the year. These are the unintended consequences of thinking that you can force a one-size-fits-all policy on children on the playground. Rather than preventing victims, you are forcing them to fraternize with their assailants.

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