The day Mr. Chipchaw found me in the boys’ bathroom window was the lowest point in my life. I was literally a breath away from giving up. I tried to block that day out of my mind but it always creeps back in. I guess because I still feel like giving up.
That afternoon, Mr. Chipchaw had walked me down to the principal’s office immediately after school. When we went in, I saw my parents sitting inside, talking with Mr. Slater the gym teacher. Principal Nickerson and Mrs. Peters looked up from some papers they were reading. I was totally mortified. It was all out in the open now.
Mom and Dad had immediately jumped up and hugged me when I entered the office. “Jonah are you okay?”
“I’m fine. I’m fine.” I said, completely embarrassed.
“No, you aren’t,” said Mr. Chipchaw. “You were on the window sill of the fourth floor boys’ bathroom.”
“I wasn’t going to jump.”
My mom was upset. “Jonah, what were you doing on the window ledge?”
Mr. Slater saved me, sort of. He explained what happened earlier that morning.
“The boys were changing for gym while I was at my desk. I heard a ruckus and went to check on them. That’s when I saw Jonah, in a corner, his back to everyone. Some of the boys had formed a semi-circle around him. They had obviously pantsed him and a couple of boys had taken out their cell phones and were recording it.”
My mother interrupted Mr. Slater. “Pantsed? What’s that?”
My dad quietly leaned in and said, “When someone yanks your shorts down, as a joke.”
“Well that’s not a joke, that’s assault. This is sick,” my mother said, getting angry.
Before any of the adults could chime in, my mother looked over at me. My face burned with humiliation and I wanted to die.
“Jonah, is this true?” she asked softly.
I just sat there, looking down.
Mr. Chipchaw put his hand on my shoulder. “It’s okay, Jonah. We need to know exactly what happened.”
I took a deep breath, but still wouldn’t look up at any of them.
“I changed my shirt and then took my jeans off. I went to grab my gym shorts out of my backpack but someone had taken it. They boys wouldn’t give it back. Then they pulled down my underwear. I was surrounded. I tried turning away...they took their phones out. Then Mr. Slater came into the locker room.”
Everyone went silent for a few seconds. Then the principal spoke. “I know that was hard, Jonah. No one in this room wants you to have to suffer like that again. In order for us to help you, it’s important that you tell me the names of every student involved in this incident.”
I looked up at my parents and then at Principal Nickerson. “Why? Are we going to press charges? Or expel them? No, I don’t want to do any of this! I just want to forget about it. I can change for gym class in a different room.”
Then Mr. Chipchaw spoke. “Jonah, I know you’re afraid of these guys. We all get that. But we can’t stop this unless you tell us everything.”
Principal Nickerson added, “And if you help me with this, Jonah, I may be able to avoid questioning every boy in the gym class.”
My stomach had flared with pain. I wanted to run.
“Jonah, is this why you were on the window ledge? Thinking about jumping?” Mom asked, trying to hold it together.
I kept looking down. I couldn’t believe my mother had said that. I mumbled, “I wasn’t going to jump. I just…needed to be alone.”
“I don’t know if I believe that,” my mom continued. “There are plenty of places to be alone, like a bathroom stall. Why the window ledge?”
I didn’t answer her.
“You are obviously in a lot of pain. Unbearable pain.” Mom’s voice cracked.
I quickly looked over at her. Tears were running down her face.
Mr. Slater tried to help. He told Mrs. Nickerson that he could name the boy who recorded the incident with his phone and also a few who had surrounded me, but that the kids dispersed quickly so he wasn’t actually sure of every student involved.
Mrs. Nickerson tried to get the meeting back on track. “Alright Jonah, let’s start at the beginning. Who took your backpack?”
I kept looking down and mumbled an answer. "Dunno."
My dad interrupted and sounded mad. “Jonah, look at your principal and give her an answer.”
I did as I was told. “I’m not sure. I was facing the lockers. I turned to grab my shorts out of my backpack and it was gone. The guys were laughing and throwing my backpack around.”
“Who was throwing the backpack around, Jonah?” Mrs. Nickerson pressed on.
I swallowed hard, not wanting to name names.
“Jonah, I will get to the bottom of this. I will question every boy in the gym class until I have all the answers.”
“Alright!” I shouted. “Give me a piece of paper. Please.”
She sighed but handed me a notepad and pen. I quickly wrote down all the names of the bullies. Then after each name I wrote a short description, defining their part in the incident.
Brian Pullman – Pulled down my underwear
Harry Jamison – Held me while Brian pulled down my underwear
Patrick Reilly – Recorded the incident with his cell phone
Todd Manning – Held me while Brian pulled down my underwear
Eddy Manning – Also tried to record the incident but his phone was out of battery
Chris Hall – Held me while Brian pulled down my underwear
Max Bishop – Laughed at the whole thing, blocked my way so I couldn’t get away
David Welby – Did the same as Max.
I quickly handed the notepad back to Mrs. Nickerson. She read through it and then cleared her throat. She began to read it aloud and then caught Mr. Chipchaw signaling to her. He was shaking his head no.
“I’m just going to pass this around to everyone. Mr. Slater, please let me know if you can confirm this information from Jonah.”
Then she handed the notepad to Mrs. Peters. My mother interjected.
“Can you tell us, Mrs. Nickerson, what is your school policy on bullying? And what are you doing to enforce it?”
Mrs. Nickerson shifted uncomfortably in her seat. “Well…we don’t have a specific policy for bullying, we adopted something called “The Dignity for all Students Act.” It’s a set of regulations and guidelines for school districts created to support students’ mental health at school and during school related events. All our teaching staff and administrators have had professional development training regarding student discrimination, harassment, and bullying. Schools have been asked to revise their code of conduct and adopt policies that create a school environment that is free from harassment and discrimination.”
“Okay…so what have you done specifically to create this environment?” My mother persisted, in bull dog mode now.
“We have all students sign a bullying pledge at the beginning of the school year and they are also given information about bullying in their planners. It’s also discussed in health and gym classes…..”
Now my dad jumped in. “This is your idea of prevention?
Then Mom again. Mrs. Nickerson was getting the tag team treatment. “And what about a real cell phone policy? If cell phones aren’t allowed in school or can at least be kept in their lockers during class, then they can’t be recording and posting the bullying.”
Mrs. Nickerson went on the defense. “We actually had a committee on cell phones last year, and despite all the input from school administrators, our health staff and faculty...the parents and students overwhelmingly objected to restrictions on cell phone use. I was in favor of banning cell phones in school...but, the committee’s recommendation was sent to the Board of Education, and the board unfortunately voted with the parents.”
I blurted out, “You could at least do a committee on bullying. Unless the parents and school board are pro-bully?”
Mrs. Nickerson smiled at me and then retrieved a file from her desk. “I received a letter earlier in the school year suggesting just that. Oddly enough it was anonymous, but it’s been helpful in crafting some concrete measures. Although I have budgeted for a couple of these things in the past, there hasn’t always been money to support it. I’ll be honest, I don’t think I’ll be able to get security cameras. And having teaching staff work extra periods will be an issue with the teachers’ union, but I have discussed with both the Superintendent of Schools and my own staff some more creative solutions."
"Like what?" I asked.
"For starters, having a student-lead campaign for Bullying Prevention Month. Bringing in few guest speakers. A tech-free week during each quarter...and possibly hiring a couple of hallway and lunchtime monitors.”
As Mrs. Nickerson talked, I sat up a little straighter and looked closely at the papers she held. I watched her shuffle my letter and highlighted sections from the Department of Education to the top of her stack.
“Good.” My mother stated. Then looked over the names as the notepad was handed to her. “You will follow up with us on your progress, Mrs. Nickerson? And please add my husband and I to the new school committee on bullying.”
“Of course, Mrs. Duffy.”
“Me too,” added Mr. Slater. He looked over at me and gave me a thumbs up.
Now I really wanted to throw up.
My dad looked at the notepad. “Did you discuss with the superintendent and the rest of the administration anything other than prevention? What about disciplinary measures?
“The school has formal procedures in place. Detention, in and out of school suspension, and lastly, expulsion. Mr. Chipchaw and I have met several times about some of the boys on Jonah’s list. Many of these boys have already received various detentions and calls to parents. And not just about Jonah.”
“I see. So this bullying has been going on for a while…” My mom said, her voice trailing off as she was piecing all of it together.
My dad immediately picked up on it. “So why weren’t we called about this? Jonah, how long have these kids been bullying you? Does this have to do anything with not seeing your friends?
“Oh Jonah….” My mom added, the sadness pouring out of her. Her eyes teared up and she reached out to touch my hand.
I stood up and walked over to the door. “I really need to go to the bathroom.”
“Sit down sport.” My dad said firmly.
Mrs. Nickerson looked at Mr. Chipchaw. “You’re up, Chippy,” she said sarcastically.
I dragged myself back to my seat and slumped down into it.
Mr. Chipchaw cleared his throat and addressed my parents. “So, if you can both think back to what ninth grade was like…you must remember someone who was bullied? Teased? Ate lunch alone? Didn’t have any friends? Maybe you experienced some of this yourself?”
Oh God, I thought. Here we go. My parents nodded.
He continued. “According to recent numbers from the National Center for Educational Statistics, twenty percent of school kids report being bullied. That’s one out of five. And of that twenty percent, less than half of all kids who experience bullying, end up telling an adult about it. So it is not unusual that a bullied kid keeps this a secret. And a boy in particular is not going to run home to his parents and say, ‘Hey mom and dad, guess what? I got my head shoved into a toilet today!’ Or, ‘I got shoved into a locker today.’ Or, ‘I got my cell phone smashed. I got my face beat in. Because I’m nerdy…I’m gay…I’m the wrong color…I don’t dress cool…’ or, ‘I’m smaller than everyone else. And since I’m being bullied, my friends are afraid to hang with me, because they may get bullied too.’ ”
Tears streamed down my mother’s face again. She finally understood my humiliation. My fear. My wanting to give up.
Mr. Chipchaw kept going. “Now, you can be upset with me, but don’t be upset with my boss and the school. And please don’t be upset with Jonah. I admit, I did notice earlier in the year that Jonah was a target. And I checked on him regularly. I tried to manage the situation between him and the bullies. I tried to help Jonah navigate school and avoid them. And more than once, I did strongly urge him to tell you both. But I also tried to give him time. And I asked Mrs. Nickerson to give it more time. Had I known how bad it was, and had I known that this situation had pushed Jonah to contemplate suicide, I would not have hesitated to have the school inform you. But you are right to be angry with me. I let everyone down. And I accept full responsibility.”
He turned to Mrs. Nickerson. “I will give you my resignation. Today.”
I jumped up. “No! No, please!” I looked around at everyone. “He did try to help me! All the time. And he wanted you all to know, but I begged him not to involve my parents. Please, don’t fire Mr. Chipchaw! You can’t, he’s the best teacher here.”
The room was silent. Finally, the school counselor, Mrs. Peters, spoke up. She addressed my parents.
“I know there are things to sort out here, but I would just like to let you know that in most cases, a student in Jonah’s situation is sent for treatment. Usually psychiatric. For a couple weeks, maybe even a month or so, depending on a doctor’s evaluation. I have an appointment already set up for tomorrow with Dr. Anthony Evans. I recommend Jonah meet with him tomorrow and then we talk again. If we can get this situation straightened out here at school, so it’s safe for Jonah, and Dr. Evans is good with daily meetings, then I can recommend that Jonah remain in school.”
My parents nodded and took the note from Mrs. Peters. My mom whispered to my dad for a long minute. My dad nodded a lot and then made an announcement.
“We don’t want to see anyone lose their job. Obviously, we are deeply concerned that this situation was kept from us. But if we can all agree that going forward, Jonah’s case is a high priority, where we talk regularly and address the bullying head on, then we want to give the school another chance to make this right. We'll make sure Jonah sees Dr. Evans tomorrow and follow up with you. We also want another meeting, right away, with all of you, and the parents of the students who have been bullying our son.”
I felt some relief that Mr. Chipchaw wouldn't be fired because of me. But the secret was out. And there would be more meetings and therapy. The adults all talked for a few more minutes but I checked out. I’m pretty sure they discussed the cyberbullying but I just tried to block it all out. The last thing I remember hearing was that Mrs. Nickerson was going to be calling every parent of the boys I listed on the notepad. And depending on what she found out, she may or may not question other students.
I closed my eyes and strained to hear the sound of the ocean. The waves crashing. I pictured myself surfing. It usually made me feel better. But this time I couldn’t help picturing myself wiping out and being knocked unconscious, sinking to the bottom of the sea.