During the six-mile bus ride to Austin Road Middle School on Aug. 28, three Henry County students learned that adult situations can have dire consequences when you’re not mature enough to handle them. A 12-year-old girl who was taunted and teased by two boys her age about her developing body made a poor choice and was expelled from school for six months.
She is now appealing that decision to the state Department of Education.
In a school discipline hearing, the girl told how two boys she described as acquaintances made fun of her, saying she probably put tissue in her bra. Embarrassed and wanting to end the laughter at her expense, she did the unthinkable — bared her breast to prove that she hadn’t embellished her appearance.
“I was shocked,” one boy said during the hearing.
But he wasn’t shocked enough to alert the bus driver or any other adult until after lunch. In the meantime, both boys spread the story throughout school. When classmates expected the boys would get in trouble, the boys decided the best defense is a good offense, according to a transcript of their testimony at the school hearing. They told a teacher what had transpired and were sent to the school counselor’s office to make a statement.
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Without notifying a parent, an administrator questioned the girl. She admitted what she did, but said the boys had bullied her into doing it. A day later, the school notified the girl’s mother about the incident. The girl was placed in in-school suspension for 10 days while awaiting the school’s tribunal.
According to the girl’s mother, the boys received three days of in-school suspension.
Henry County school officials said they can’t comment on specific student discipline issues.
The girl’s mother has hired a lawyer, and a hearing on their appeal is scheduled at 10 a.m. Tuesday at the state DOE office.
“The basis of this appeal is inadequate due process,” wrote attorney Candice McKinley in her petition. “There was credible evidence of bullying and sexual harassment that the Austin administration failed to investigate.”
McKinley added that the girl had minimal past behavior issues and state law requires that schools give first-time offenders lighter punishments. She also contends that the school failed to follow its own procedures because there was no investigation into the bullying/sexual harassment claims.
“Here, the direct evidence of bullying/sexual harassment by the male students was intentionally disregarded by the Austin administration in violation of local, state and federal law,” she wrote in the petition.
This type of adolescent behavior isn’t unusual, but how the adults handle the situation sends a message to the girl and the two boys that may shape future conduct, said Dr. Adriana Flores, chair of the Committee on Psychology of Women and Girls of the board of the Georgia Psychological Association.
“Adolescent girls already struggle with their developing bodies and the adolescent developing brain lacks the skill to deal with those kind of difficult situations,” she said when told about the case. “It appears she was looking for the easiest way to lessen the stress of the bullying.”
Being coerced into atypical behavior isn’t unusual for someone who doesn’t have mature judgment and acts impulsively, said Flores.
“Boys learn early on that they can get away with sexual harassment and it escalates to more serious behavior when they grow up,” she said. It’s that kind of acceptance that has taken the #me too movement so long to gain momentum, she said. Flores urged school systems to take a closer look at how they mete out punishment and get rid of disparities between how boys and girls are disciplined.
“Educating students about equality and self-worth is a very important lesson that schools need to realize they are teaching,” she said.