Denice Barnes says school administrators have not done enough to combat bullying in schools. A Nov. 7 workshop at Brook Knoll Elementary in Scotts Valley will address the issue. Photo by Chip Scheuer.
In most ways, he’s what you could call a normal kid.
Quentin Barnes enjoys sports like swimming and playing basketball, and has what his mother Denice Barnes calls a “goofy sense of humor.” When the fourth grader grows up, Quentin wants to be part-time professional baseball player and an entomologist. His enthusiasm for biology is already impressive for a nine-year-old.
Denice, 43 years old, says her son was “typically a very happy, easy-going, positive kid.” That’s why she was so worried to find Quentin crying and telling her, “I didn’t do anything wrong. Why do I deserve this?”
Last year, Quentin, one of a handful of African Americans at his school, became a victim of bullying at Soquel Elementary School. Some of his classmates began playing a game they made up called the “Quentin Touch” game. Quentin had the “Quentin Touch,” according to the game. If another student touched him or was touched by him, the other student would get the “Quentin Touch.”
The basic idea comes from the well-known book and movie series The Diary of a Wimpy Kid, in which kids would play “Cheese Touch” and avoid a slice of moldy Swiss cheese on the basketball court. (Paradoxically, the book’s plot intends to parody the mean-spirited games typically found on American playgrounds, not glorify them.)
The “Quentin Touch” game lasted two or three months at first, and didn’t stay in the classroom, Denice says. Her sons’ schoolmates played it on the playground. People in other classes joined in.
After Quentin found out about the game being played behind his back, he told his third grade teacher. Principal Cata Fitzgerald made the students apologize to him and play a game of tetherball together. Denice says Quentin felt humiliated.
Understandably so, says bullying expert Michael Josephson of the Josephson Institute for Youth Ethics.
“Those are totally ancient tactics,” he says. “Forcing the bully to apologize is an absolute ludicrous joke.”
The bully knows the apology is fake, Josephson adds, and so does the victim, who might even decide not to report an incident next time. “The idea of trivializing it—say sorry, shake hands and play tetherball—is baloney,” he says. “It has never worked and will never work.”
Fitzgerald ignored repeated requests to be interviewed for this story about Quentin’s case, and Soquel Elementary policies for dealing with bullying.
This year, problems have persisted. Denice says a child chased Quentin around the playground, hitting him and trying to knock him down—even encouraging other kids to do the same. Quentin defended himself, striking back, and both kids lost their recess.
Early last month, Quentin found out his classmates started playing “Quentin Touch” again and told his teacher, exactly what the principal had told him to do. According to Denice, the teacher never called her to let her know about the incident. And when Quentin’s dad, who lives in Atlanta, called Fitzgerald’s office to ask about it, he says she denied it and said no one had played the game since last year.
Denice says Fitzgerald scheduled a training session on bullying, but administrators excluded Quentin and at least one other student “because they didn’t want them to feel uncomfortable.”
Denice also says administrators have criticized Quentin for not interacting better with other students. “There’s a preference to blame things on kids,” Denice says. “I’ve been told several times that Quentin needs to improve his social skills.”
Quentin Barnes is not alone.
32 percent of students age 12 to 18 reported being bullied in the 2006-2007 school year, according to a report from the national Department of Education. And over 70 percent of students play some roll in bullying, whether as a bully, a victim or a witness.
According to the Josephson Institute of Ethics, the figures are even higher—their studies say half of students report being bullied each year.
Ron Glass, associate education professor at UC-Santa Cruz, says that in our individualistic society with many racial, gender and class distinctions, people with low status look for someone lower down on the social ladder to push around.
“It isn’t surprising to find bullies in an individualistic culture like ours,” Glass says. “If kids have low status, they react in assertive ways because that’s how our culture tells them to be somebody.”
Bullying expert Nicole Young from Optimal Solutions Consulting in Santa Cruz will be leading a discussion workshop, through First 5 Santa Cruz’s Positive Parenting Program about bullying Wednesday Nov. 7. She says people refusing to stand up and address bullying is a serious issue in schools.
“They are encouraging bullying by standing by and watching it happen and also not saying anything. To really address bullying, it’s going to take a lot of work and good communication—from the kids, the parents, the teachers, the administration.”
The workshop, which will be at Brook Knoll Elementary in Scotts Valley, will address what to do if one’s child is being bullied, why children bully one another and how to even tell it’s happening based on important signs.
“If the child is all of a sudden wanting to be more isolated from their peers, that could be a sign,” Young says. “There could be more obvious signs of more physical bullying if their coming home bruised or hurt or with their belongings missing.”
Young says that with the advent of cyber-bullying online, the issues have only gotten worse. “It’s frightening to realize how much bullying had been going on,” she says.
The New York Times reported in 2010 that one in five middle school students said they had been cyber-bullied.
In the past two months, there have been three high-profile cases of suicide in the aftermath of cyber-bullying, two in Ireland and one in Canada. Earlier this year, 15-year-old Amanda Cummings of New York stepped in front of a bus carrying a suicide note after receiving cruel comments on her Facebook page.
“There have been a number of instances like that recently,” Young says, “where people feel so alone and so helpless. It’s heart breaking.”
One of the most famous cases came in 2006, when 50-year-old Lori Drew created a fake MySpace account, which she used to harass 16-year-old Megan Meier. Meier took her life. Drew was indicted in 2008, but acquitted in 2009 because a judge determined the government has no authority to police websites’ terms of service.
Michael Josephson, a father of four, says it’s easy to get wrapped up in the statistics, but the numbers aren’t what matter.
“It’s deep enough,” Josephson says. “There are enough suicides. There are enough people who are torn up emotionally. There are a bunch of kids who don’t want to go to school. There are enough examples where it’s start to stop counting and start fixing.”
After Quentin Barnes’ bullying woes began last year, his mother began to see the clear signs of her son feeling isolated.
“Since this is happening, he’s been very withdrawn. He’s been very sad. I can’t even talk about it without getting emotional,” Denice says, a tear running down her face.
At five feet and over 100 pounds, Quentin is no munchkin. He’s in the 99th percentile for height. He’s over a full head taller than nine of the members on his 11-member baseball team. Denice calls him light-skinned “Baby Shaq,” after pro basketball behemoth Shaquille O’Neal, who was reportedly 6’6” at 13 years old.
Denice worries that if the bullying continues, Quentin will start fighting back more aggressively and keep throwing more punches—something he’s already threatened to do. She doesn’t want to see that coming back to haunt him.
“I don’t want him to not get scholarships or educational opportunities because he hit someone who called him a name,” Denice says.
Nine years old may sound like an early age to start talking about someone’s long-term educational chances. But she has a lot of faith in Quentin. He gets very good grades, reads at a seventh-grade level, and even started a school reading club. He scores advanced in standardized STAR testing for both English and math.
And he talks at dizzying speeds of his knowledge of tarantulas, Amazonian fish and his true love, insects.
“They are really cool, have cool designs work in special ways,” Quentin says. “Ants, they’re really small, but they carry about 90 times their weight!”
Denice would like have Quentin transferred to a different school, but has been unsuccessful so far, and her family can’t afford private schooling. When it comes to tough times, Quentin tries to take them one day at a time.
“It’s horrible,” Quentin says. “It makes me feel uncomfortable. It makes me not want to go to school at all, but you have to deal with things in life, so I go to school.”
“Being Bullied: A Free Positive Parenting Workshop” will be held Wednesday, Nov. 7 at Brook Knoll Elementary in Scotts Valley, from 5:30-8pm. For more information on bullying resources, visit www.first5scc.org.