Terrance Heath

If You Can't Beat 'Em, Sue 'Em.

Filed By Terrance Heath | March 28, 2008 3:38 PM | comments

Filed in: Living, Living, Politics
Tags: Billy Wolfe, bullies, bullying, cyberbullying, education policy, growing up, Lawrence King, Megan Meier, school administrators

When it comes to blogging these days, when I come across something I want to blog about days — even weeks or months — go by before I get around to actually blogging about it. Half the time, I let it go because it's not news anymore, and I can just imagine people asking, "Why's he blogging about that? It's so, like, last week." (As a result, I have tons of half-written draft posts sitting in queue, most of which will never see the light of day.)

The up side is that almost everything comes around again, and when it does I've got something partially written, and maybe even a few links already in hand. So, when I read Billy Wolfe's story in The New York Times, and how he and his parents finally dealt with bullying, I knew exactly what I wanted to say; even though I'm still a couple of days late in saying it.

All lank and bone, the boy stands at the corner with his younger sister, waiting for the yellow bus that takes them to their respective schools. He is Billy Wolfe, high school sophomore, struggling.

Moments earlier he left the sanctuary that is his home, passing those framed photographs of himself as a carefree child, back when he was 5. And now he is at the bus stop, wearing a baseball cap, vulnerable at 15.

A car the color of a school bus pulls up with a boy who tells his brother beside him that he’s going to beat up Billy Wolfe. While one records the assault with a cellphone camera, the other walks up to the oblivious Billy and punches him hard enough to leave a fist-size welt on his forehead.

The video shows Billy staggering, then dropping his book bag to fight back, lanky arms flailing. But the screams of his sister stop things cold.

The aggressor heads to school, to show friends the video of his Billy moment, while Billy heads home, again. It’s not yet 8 in the morning.

Bullying is everywhere, including here in Fayetteville, a city of 60,000 with one of the country’s better school systems. A decade ago a Fayetteville student was mercilessly harassed and beaten for being gay. After a complaint was filed with the Office of Civil Rights, the district adopted procedures to promote tolerance and respect — none of which seems to have been of much comfort to Billy Wolfe.

Oh how I wish I'd had a video camera handy when I was growing up. A lot of things might have turned out differently.

When I read Billy's story, I was immediately reminded of Megan Meier's story.

LIKE most mobs, the one that pursued Megan Meier was cruel and unrelenting. Its members gathered on the social networking site MySpace and called Megan a liar, a fat whore and worse.

Megan, 13, fought back, insulting her tormenters with every profanity she knew. But the mob shouted her down, overwhelming her computer and her shaky self-confidence with a barrage of hateful instant messages.

“Mom, they’re being horrible!” Megan said, sobbing into the phone when her mother called. After an hour, Megan ran into her bedroom and hanged herself with a belt.

“She felt there was no way out,” Ms. Meier said.

Megan Meier’s suicide made headlines because she was the victim of a hoax. Lori Drew, another mother in the neighborhood, said in a police report that she had created a MySpace profile of a boy, an invention named “Josh Evans,” and that she and her daughter had manipulated Megan into thinking that this fabricated person liked her.

Then, after a few weeks, Ms. Meier said, girls posing as Josh wrote MySpace messages telling Megan that he hated her. He insulted her, and other girls — most unaware that Josh did not exist — viciously piled on. (Later, through her lawyer, Ms. Drew, 48, denied creating the MySpace page used in the hoax and denied knowledge of the final messages.)

In some ways, the hoax was a tragic oddity. Most mothers don’t pull vicious pranks, and few harassed adolescents become depressed and commit suicide. But Megan’s story is also a case study about cyberbullying.

There are some similarities and differences, sure. Billy Wolfe didn't end up committing suicide. But both were different. Billy was was the butt of a joke and told his mom about it. Thus he probably violated the "boy code" which made him a target for bullying. Meagan was a "goofy" girl who struggled to fit in and struggled with weight.

I can't help seeing a lot of my own experience echoed in Wolfe's story, even though he doesn't really know why he was targeted. That's the major difference. I knew why.

They started picking on Billy Wolfe in elementary school. In middle school, the assault of vicious words was joined by fists. In high school, it's the same.

When bullies in one Arkansas community feel the need to beat somebody up, they look for Billy Wolfe.

“I’m not completely sure,” the 16-year-old boy said on Wednesday on TODAY when asked why his life has been one of black eyes, cuts and bruises.

My experience is that it doesn't take much. It might be wearing the "wrong" shirt or the "wrong" color, or just being the different in some way that makes you a target. Once you're a target, though, unless you're big enough to beat up anyone who looks at you wrong, you're going to stay a target as long as you stay there.

When it comes to boys, gay-baiting or gay bashing or some form of homophobia is almost always involved. And it doesn't matter if the target is actually gay or not. Simply not being what a girl or a boy is "supposed to be" can be enough to set the ball rolling, as Patricia Nell Warren noted in writing about her own experience with bullying.

In postwar American society, a girl was not supposed to be chunky, or tomboyish, or a "brain." She was supposed to be an air-head dreamboat in a tight sweater, like every teen star we saw in the movies. Me, I looked like a cowboy even in a tight sweater.

Until we fix that, we won't make a dent in bullying. And we won't do that because bullies serve a purpose, albeit a twisted one.

Bullying has been part of school life forever. Teasing targeted anything imaginable, from race or religion to the size of your ears. But bullies always pushed extra-hard on any nonconformity on sexual orientation or gender. Today that push of theirs has gotten horrendously blatant. As the LGBT rights movement grows in national influence, it's no accident that school bullying has gotten so bad. The bullies know they've been given the job of morals police without badges. Church leaders and conservative politicians don't give a damn that kids like Lawrence King are killed. They actually oppose the passage of "safety at school" laws protecting LGBT students, because they know the bullies act as a deterrent to coming out at school. And the bullies know they will often get away with their crimes.

NARTH knows that. They're just one of the few groups who'll get caught saying it out loud.

A coalition of organisations monitoring groups claiming to convert gay people back to heterosexuality, have criticised the National Association for Research and Therapy of Homosexuals (NARTH) after a member advocated teasing transgender children to “re-establish that necessary boundary.”

NARTH Scientific Advisory Committee member Joseph Berger said on a blog in reaction to a San Francisco Chronicle article on gender identity issues, “I suggest, indeed, letting children who wish go to school in clothes of the opposite sex - but not counselling other children to not tease them or hurt their feelings.

“On the contrary, don’t interfere, and let the other children ridicule the child who has lost that clear boundary between play-acting at home and the reality needs of the outside world.

“Maybe, in this way, the child will re-establish that necessary boundary.”

Necessary boundaries. That's really the point isn't it? Not, though, in the way I think NARTH intended. There are "necessary boundaries," alright, and part of the problem is that they're enforced against the wrong people, as a commenter on Patricia Nell Warren's post described.

At the schools i went to they tried counselling the victim, suggesting the victim conform more, be like everyone else, don't stand out and stand up for themselves. The latter didn't work for most kids I knew. Eloquent speeches fell on deaf ears and unless they were blessed with hidden strength violence would often backfire.

Never a "big" person, with no "hidden strength of violence," I learned to fight with words. But words are only weapons if your tormentors are smart enough to understand what you're saying. That's not usually the case.

That doesn't mean they weren't handy with them — in their own way, and when they wanted to be — even if eloquence and wit were missing from their arsenal. I remember once I went to a teacher because I was upset about what I'd found written about me (again) on the walls of the boy's restroom. All she did was offer me a sponge cleaner to wipe the words off the walls. I guess she thought she was "empowering" me in some way. I did clean the words off the wall, but while I did so, I wondered if the teacher had even guessed what I already knew: those words would appear again on those very walls. And they did, less than a day later, and in permanent marker intead of ballpoint. (I guess one of my anonymous tormentors had a wit or two about him.) The words would be there until the other boys stopped writing them. And for them to stop writing them, someone else would have to stop them one way or another.

Nobody stopped them. I remember once I was being harassed, called names, while I was in the restroom. I returned to class visibly upset, and a teacher noticed. She asked what was wrong, and I told her. But I couldn't bring myself to tell her what they were calling me. She assumed it was racial, and read them the riot act. I didn't say anything, but at least they left me alone for a few days after that.

That's the closest anyone came to stopping it. Sometimes I would just avoid it. There was the semester when I failed phys. ed., because I simply wouldn't "dress out" for class. I'd forget my clothes or feign illness, because I was determined not to go back into that locker room, where the taunts went beyond words and became physical.

I finally left the school. I knew the high school I was zoned for would be hell for me, so I auditioned and got in to the performing arts magnet school in our area. The first semester of eight grade was winding down when the magnet school called to tell me that my grades and audition scores put me at the top of the waiting list, and a spot had become open. Did I want to start in the middle of 8th grade, or finish out the year at my old school?

I left. I admit, I made a point of showing how glad I was to be leaving, and told someone — maybe one of my teachers — why I really wanted to leave. It got back to the guidance counselor, and asked to meet with me. He wanted to know why I was leaving and why I'd been bullied so. I tried to explain that the students made fun of everything about me, because everything about me was "gay." From the way I talked to the way I always had my nose in a book to the way I walked. Nothing about me was the way a boy was "supposed to be." The guidance counselor had me walk across the room for him. I did. He couldn't see what was wrong with the way I walked. And that was it.

I'm not sure that school officials ever understood what I was dealing with, or that I was capable of making them understand. The response I always got was either that I should "toughen up," that "these things happen," and that "it's just part of growing up." That may all be true, but for a kid who's going through it alone, not of that matters. We just want it to stop.

Patricia Nell Warren wrote:

So yes, let's pass better laws. Let's compel more school districts to fight bullying and protect their LGBT students. Let's get the courts and the cops and the politicians on our side. But families need to do more for their LGBT children than just support them in self-acceptance. They need to let their kids know that they actually possess the power to stop the bullying and to inspire more acceptance in others. If families fail to provide this life-saving education, then communities and schools and counselors and LGBT youth organizations need to step in and do more for the potential victims.

I don't know that I had the power to stop the bullying or inspire acceptance. Perhaps, if I'd had the kind of support at home that Warren writes about. I know at least that I had the foresight to look down the road and know that I had to get out, and the ingenuity and talent to find a way out. I couldn't get rid of the bullies, or make them stop, but I could put some distance between them and me.

We won't get rid of bullies or bullying until we stop celebrating them, rewarding them, idolizing them, and electing them. And since we're not going to do that anytime soon, the next best thing may be an old fashioned response: Sue the bastards.

His parents have pursued the normal avenues of redress, from talking to the parents of Billy’s tormentors to appealing to school officials. As the assaults have continued, they’ve finally resorted to hiring an attorney and suing at least one of the bullies. They’ve also gone public, telling Billy’s story to the New York Times, which played it on the front page of the newspaper.

Fayetteville school officials, citing privacy laws, say they can’t comment on the Wolfes’ allegations. Officials declined to appear on camera, telling TODAY that they have a no-tolerance policy toward bullying. “Unfortunately, from time to time these incidents will occur,” officials said in a statement, but when they do, the district aims for “fair treatment of all concerned.”

If only that were so, said the family’s attorney, Westbrook Doss Jr., there would be no need for a lawsuit against one bully and the possibility of more suits against other bullies as well as against the school district. The family does not dispute that disciplinary action may have been taken against some of the kids involved in tormenting their son, but, they say, no one has ever been charged with assault despite the video evidence.

“I don’t think that’s happening in Billy’s case,” Doss said. “There may be other cases where they’ve responded appropriately. What we’re asking for is appropriate response.”

Megan Meier's parents have the same idea and — no surprisingly — people are willing to help them.

Megan also hasn't been forgotten by prosecutors, who have been stymied in their attempts to bring charges against someone in the case. In an unlikely twist, nearly 2,000 miles from Missouri where Megan Meier ended her life, the U.S. attorney's office in Los Angeles began its own investigation. In this case, the alleged victim is not Megan Meier but MySpace, which is based in Beverly Hills, Calif.

The prosecutor is trying a new tactic, gambling on a charge he thinks may stick: wire fraud.

... No criminal charges were brought against anyone by the state of Missouri.

"It's pathetic," Meier said. "It's pathetic that we as a society do not have laws to protect our children or to protect us in general from somebody being able to hide behind a computer and do these despicable things."

But the case is open again, thanks to the California prosecutor's attempt to charge Lori Drew with fraud.

Former federal prosecutor Laurie Levenson, who worked at the Los Angeles U.S. attorney's office for several years, says it is extremely difficult to prosecute such a controversial case, particularly because it involves the Internet.

"Technology is outpacing the law, and we have to have the laws catch up with technology including things like MySpace," Levenson said.

"In this case, prosecutors are searching around. We want to find her guilty of something. What can we get even if it's a stretch."

Prosecutors may claim Lori Drew defrauded MySpace by helping set up a bogus profile on its Web site in which she posed as a minor and targeted another minor, Megan Meier.

Of course, it's not that unusual. People want something to happen in cases like this. And if the law can't do it, they'll do it themselves.

On message boards and Web site memorials, in chats and forums, Megan would be mourned, analyzed, romanticized, vilified and endlessly discussed, giving her in death the popularity she never knew in life.

If the Internet had killed Megan Meier, now it would avenge her.

...When Ron and Tina Meier began speaking out for tougher laws against cyber-bullying, the tragedy immediately became a cause celebre. But the sophisticated powers of the information age and the frontier atmosphere of the World Wide Web were about to sideswipe each other again, set in motion this time by a housewife in Richmond.

Sarah Wells was an early convert who had enjoyed the raucous town-hall debates of the blogosphere for a few years already. Married to a lawyer, the 45-year-old blogger was dubious when a link to the newspaper story about Megan Meier popped up on her screen: This was so outrageous, it had to be an urban myth.

It was easy enough to find out for herself.

"I wanted to know who did this," Wells says. She found Megan's obituary online and looked up the Meiers' address in an online phonebook. The newspaper story revealing the hoax mentioned that Tina Meier was a Realtor who had sold the unnamed perpetrator a house four doors down just a few years ago. Wells found St. Charles County tax records online and searched homes purchased on Waterford Crystal Drive during that period. The trail quickly led to Curt and Lori Drew. She then contacted a source she refuses to name, "someone in a position to know," and confirmed Lori Drew's name against a police report.

Wells posted the Drews' names and address on her blog. "I think there are a lot of reasons people would want to know," she explains. "There's the shaming and accountability side of things. And protection of the community: She could be doing this to other kids."

Overnight, Wells's blog ricocheted through cyberspace, and by morning, an online lynch mob had formed. Already pariahs in their own neighborhood, the Drews reportedly began getting death threats, harassing calls, and ugly e-mails and letters from the global village.

Cyber-sleuths combed public records online to post photos of Lori and Curt Drew along with heated messages demanding they be held accountable. Satellite images of the house were also posted, along with the Drews' address and phone numbers, and details about where each worked.

"Where do you search for vehicle records? My stalking arsenal needs some updating," one blogger asked others. "How about organizing a lot of folks to just stand in front of their house and stare? Subtle, but creepy, and perfectly legal," suggested another. Boycotts of businesses using Lori Drew's coupon-mailing service were organized and letter-writing campaigns launched to lawmakers, employers and even the chamber of commerce.

What lawmakers couldn't or wouldn't do, virtual vigilantes quickly did. Megan's tormentors were forced into hiding.

Now, don't get me wrong. I'm not condoning what was done to the Drews anymore than what was done to Megan. The problem with turning the web into a public pillory is that there's no due diligence, let alone due process. And the consequences can be very, very real, even if you never get to confront your accusers — who are shielded by countless computer monitors. Just ask Megan.

But what should happen to people like Laurie Drew, when there's nothing the law can do to them? Real harm was done, and with some degree of intent. So, shouldn't there be some consequences?

You can't simply expect people to accept that God or karma will take care of it, or that what goes around comes around. When someone I care about has been hurt — or just someone obviously innocent has been hurt — I know on some level that the people responsible are going to get what's coming to them. Yes, I believe that whatever you sent into the universe eventually comes back to you. But there's a part of me that wants to make sure they get it. Sometimes, in some dark corner of my soul, I want to be fate's delivery boy.

So, I say sue the fuckers.

Sure, I believe the only way to begin putting stop to the kind of bullying that Billy, Megan, and Lawrence King experiences is to create a culture of empathy. But we don't live in that culture yet. We live in a culture where people understand two things: violence and money. If you can't kick their asses in the schoolyard, kick their assses in court. Or at least give a taste to the people who watched it all happening and didn't do anything about it.

Megan's parents and Billy's parents are taking a page from a playbook that's worked well for gay youth who've faced bullying and harassment. It worked well for Jamie Nabozny, who won a $900,000 settlement when he sued his school district for not protecting him from harassment that caused him to be hospitalized several times and left him suicidal. It gave Charlene Nguon a basis to sue her school district after her principle outed her to her family. (Ngoun lost her case, but perhaps the school district at least had to endure the expense of a defense, which might enough for them to discourage similar behavior in the future.) It worked for Derek Henkle, who won a $451,000 settlement from his school district; and for Dylan Theno, who won a $440,000 from his school district. It worked for George Loomis, whose settlement with his school included the implementation of a model anti-harassment program.

Tolerance, acceptance and understanding may come later, but for now the answer seems clear: If you can't beat 'em, sue 'em.


Recent Entries Filed under Politics:

Leave a comment

We want to know your opinion on this issue! While arguing about an opinion or idea is encouraged, personal attacks will not be tolerated. Please be respectful of others.

The editorial team will delete a comment that is off-topic, abusive, exceptionally incoherent, includes a slur or is soliciting and/or advertising. Repeated violations of the policy will result in revocation of your user account. Please keep in mind that this is our online home; ill-mannered house guests will be shown the door.


Battybattybats | March 29, 2008 12:34 AM

Thanks for quoting my earlier comment! I couldn't believe my ears when I found out only us victims were being counseled.

"Cut your hair, cut your nails, stop reading books in public." That was there idea of fixing the problem. "find a sport to play with the other boys in." like that was a good idea.

It's easier to sue in the USA. Here in Australia it wasn't then a viable option. Especially when I was so ostracised I didn't know the names of more than half my attackers, only those who shared classes with me.

I went in and added the link to Patricia's post for you, Terrance. :)

I loved this post - one of your best. You're completely right on the money. And while the idea of an internet lynch mob disturbs me for the lack of due process and impartiality, at the same time it seems like justice for Megan's tormentors that used the internet in the same way to harass her to death. What goes around comes around. I hope they're still in hiding.

Battybattybats | March 29, 2008 10:50 AM

The trouble with lynch mobs is when they get it wrong. I recall one example when a mob started harrassing a paediatrician thinking it meant pedophile!

The trouble with lawsuits is that many people in the general public just assume it's a con and that people are out for the money, however after just one large victory it forces substantial changes. After one substantial victory over a school all other schools will clamp down on bullying as best they can in an utter panic not to be sued next.

Fear of lawsuits has drasticly cut down sexual harrassment in the workplace, it hasn't extinguished it but it has been very effective in reducing it. All it needed was some high-profile test case victories.

So I say, sue the school. Sue them as close to the time of the infraction as possible. Sue them substantially then put as much of the money as possible into a legal fund to help others sue likewise.

That will quickly shrink the bullying problem very quickly indeed! The Principles will be rushing out teaching tolerance at assemblies faster than you can say 'hit in their own hip pocket'!

Thanks for quoting me, Terrance, and for adding a thought-provoking piece to the literature on what to do about bullying.

I agree with you that suing the bastards is a good tactic, including the demand for punitive damages.

Suing the school district that fails to protect you is a good way to go, because most school districts are so strapped for funds that they don't want to risk the possibility of punitive damages being awarded. Families or students don't necessarily have the funds to sue, but organizations like ACLU, Lambda Legal Defense and other will often step in and support a case.

Holding individual members of a school board accountable, especially those who vote against safe-schools policies, is a good way to go.

Sometimes the threat to sue might be enough -- backed up by organizing a "youth lobby day" appearance at school board meetings. Usually school boards allow time for public comment by stakeholders and can't prevent you from speaking on a legitimate issue. When a school board hears 2 minutes each from five or 10 kids and their parents, about out-of-control bullying in their school -- not only anti-gay bullying but other types -- even a conservative school board might wake up to their huge liability.

Conservative school boards and principals need to be made to understand that their tolerance of gay kids being bullied will only backfire on them and make other types of bullying worse as well.