A high tolerance for abuse

Our view: Why did it take a third-grader’s desperate cry for help for officials at West Baltimore’s Gilmor Elementary School to recognize they had a problem with bullies?

May 02, 2010

Parents normally expect their children will be safe in the hands of teachers and principals when they send them off to school. Unfortunately, that doesn't appear to have been the case at Gilmor Elementary School in West Baltimore, where last month a third-grader was bullied and assaulted so severely by some classmates that she spoke of committing suicide by jumping out a second-story window.

Where were school officials when this child was being so cruelly mistreated that she contemplated ending her own life? And what are they doing now to ensure that similar incidents of bullying don't happen again?

The comment about killing herself was made by 8-year-old Shaniya Boyd, a student at Gilmor who suffers from cerebral palsy, an illness that apparently made her a target for ridicule and worse among some of her schoolmates. Shaniya's mother, Geneva Biggus, says that on the day of the assault her daughter was teased, knocked off the crutches she uses to walk and repeatedly kicked in the forehead.

School officials acknowledge the attack occurred and that three students have been suspended for participating in it. But they dispute that Shaniya was ever in any danger of acting on her suicidal thought, or that Gilmor's teachers and principal tolerate a culture of violence at the school that makes such incidents more likely.

Shaniya's story emerges at a time when parents across the country are still struggling to come to terms with the death of Phoebe Prince, the South Hadley, Mass., teen who killed herself because she could no longer endure the bullying of her schoolmates. Ms. Prince hanged herself in a basement stairwell at home after returning from school. Her case became a pointed reminder that the destructive effects of classroom bullying don't stop at the schoolhouse door.

Whether Shaniya actually tried to kill herself in class after the incident, as her mother claims, or whether she merely expressed that wish and was then taken to the nurse's office, as a teacher at the school contends, is irrelevant in terms of the degree of emotional and physical trauma she suffered. She clearly had been made to feel deeply vulnerable by the attack and held out little hope that the adults running the school could protect her.

The blame for that falls squarely on Gilmor's school administrators and teachers. They had every reason to know of the abusive atmosphere in Shaniya's classroom. Her regular teacher had been placed on administrative leave at the beginning of April after a complaint she physically abused one of her pupils. That instructor was replaced by an assistant who apparently was completely incapable of maintaining order in the class. Under both teachers, Shaniya had been attacked repeatedly by her classmates, and her mother had met with school administrators and school police after each incident.

Yet amazingly, school department officials insist that Gilmor Principal Ledonnis Hernandez took all appropriate measures in Shaniya's case, and they continue to have faith in her ability to monitor and respond to incidents of bullying. Their response to what appears to have been a major systemic failure is essentially just to continue with more of the same.

That's not good enough, certainly not for Shaniya's mother, Ms. Biggus, who enrolled her daughter in another school after the April attack, having become disgusted with Gilmor's callous disregard for her child's safety and well-being.

Yet what about all the other children who remain at risk, not only at Gilmor but across a city school system that seems to have developed a remarkably high tolerance for student bullies? Officials at the Maryland State Department of Education suspect that Baltimore City vastly underreports incidents of bullying even under new guidelines issued four years ago that require schools to aggressively investigate such complaints.

Clearly that never happened in Shaniya Boyd's case, or if it did, officials did little or nothing to stop the abuse. What were they waiting for? It shouldn't take another suicide by a distraught victim of schoolyard bullies to make teachers and principals finally recognize they have a problem on their hands.

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