Rarely does a fight involving middle school students result in the level of attention than the one that occurred in Fort Mill earlier this month is receiving. Part of the reason for that is the family of one of the boys involved hasn’t been shy about airing its grievances with how the fight was handled by the Fort Mill School District.
Another reason is the family that went public, even though the boy’s mother says she is loathe to call him a “victim” nonetheless contends the 15 year-old was victimized by bullies engaged in ethnic baiting. The Fort Mill Middle School student, who’s older than many of his peers because of his birth date and time spent being home-schooled, told his parents the fight started after he was verbally tormented over his Jewish roots. It began on an activity bus taking the football team home from an away game and boiled over after the bus pulled into the FMMS parking lot, he said.
He’s told the same story to officials in a written statement and in media interviews and his mother broadcast the allegations in videos posted online and through a Facebook page.
Before we go any further, let’s point out that the 15 year-old and his family is the only side the public has heard from in this. The other boys’ names have been redacted from a police reported filed by the school resource officer and neither they nor their families have made any attempt to comment publically. The school district has said little directly about the case other than to acknowledge all those involved were suspended from school and suspended from the football team for the final two games. Privacy guidelines prohibit officials from providing most details, so many of the questions surrounding the case are going unanswered.
If there’s another side to this story – and most times something is lost in translation when an account of such an incident is given by only one party – it’s not going to be heard anytime soon, it seems. There is a video camera on the bus, but district officials say a glitch prevented it from recording what occurred.
One of the witnesses to the fight – the mom who went public – wasn’t privy to what led up to it. She does, however, say her son has been the target of bullying since elementary school, when he talked about his Jewish grandfather during a unit on the Holocaust. This was despite the fact that neither the boy nor his immediate family are practicing Jews. His mother became a Christian as a teenager, she says, and his father is a Christian minister. Some theology scholars would argue that technically both the boy and his mother are Jewish; others would argue that they are not, but that’s not relevant here. What is relevant is the impression that a student, a resident of seemingly tolerant Fort Mill, was singled out because of his ethnic and/or religious background.
Consistently, the boy has said that on the school bus that day, he was told, “Sit down, Jew.”
That sounds eerily like what a Nazi storm trooper or concentration camp guard would say and is something that can’t be ignored.
Now, members of the Anti-Defamation League and a Fort Mill synagogue – the town’s first – are getting involved and offering to partner with the school district on programs to bring awareness and foster tolerance. That can be helpful and we hope to see plans get underway before Christmas break. It would be even better for the school and the district as a whole to take the initiative. Teachers and staff already receive sensitivity training, but something specific to this situation would be useful.
It can’t hurt to call an assembly and let students openly discuss their feelings and talk about any tensions students feel are based on the ethnic or religious background of peers. Despite the school district’s best intentions, it’s inevitable that some students grow up hearing hate speech and learning bullying habits from their parents and that’s the way they will behave at school. That’s not to say hearing the opposite at school won’t change a child’s mind. There’s no way to measure it, but it stands to reason that as kids grow older and are exposed to broader ideas and experiences, they can unlearn hate.
We suspect that if all sides in this case told their stories, the truth, like in most cases, would be somewhere in the middle. Absent the account of the other boys involved or their families, all we have to go on is that some sort of ugly incident took place.
Let’s do all we can to prevent another one.