Education Opinion

Confronting Playground Terrorists

By James K. Aumack — October 24, 1984 6 min read

I guess it’s as hard being the father as it is being the child. Somehow, I don’t remember growing up being this hard. But now I see it’s just as tough on the parents as it is on the children.

I teach remedial arithmetic to grades K-8 in Jersey City, N.J. I am also the father of John, a 12-year-old boy who is very bright. Our boy is meek and mild, the type of person who would rather read a book or go for a walk with friends than play in a ball game. He’d rather switch than fight. None of this is his fault because I’m the same way. John is what I’ve raised him to be. I like him very much just the way he is. Needless to say, I also love him, but that’s different. Some people can love their children and not like them. I like him.

One day just before Thanksgiving last year, John came home for lunch looking as if he had the weight of the world on his shoulders. When I asked what was troubling him, his only answer was, “I’ll handle it, Dad.” So I let him handle whatever “it” was.

But about two weeks later, almost by accident, the story came out during parent-teacher conference night. As the reading teacher was winding up her comments, she added: “I thought I’d tell you that as I was going to lunch the other day, I saw your son on the ground and there were three or four boys kicking him. You know he could be hurt that way. I asked him if he was hurt and he said he wasn’t. The boys involved said that they were only playing.”

My wife and I felt ourselves go numb when we heard her story. How could this not have been brought to our attention sooner? What could John have done to have provoked these boys into beating and kicking him? What kind of teachers and school would allow this without telling us immediately? We had a million questions and no answers because, living as we do in a small town, we were reluctant to place a teacher on the defensive.

As we found out from John, he was experiencing a great deal of negative peer pressure at school. Because he was willing to take a beating in order to be one of the crowd, he was taking a lot of beatings. It seems that his ability to read at a 12th-grade level and his lack of interest in rough sports were handicaps. Some children victimized him, taking advantage of his passivity to act out their aggressive energies. Some offered him friendship and acceptance only in return for copies of his homework and correct answers. And John cooperated. Even though he felt very bad about his behavior, he needed to be accepted by those his own age. This conflict made him very unhappy and it soon seemed as though everything was going downhill, both at school, where he allowed himself to be victimized, and at home, where he became sluggish and uncooperative.

What does a parent do when this sort of situation occurs? Some parents wouldn’t notice that there was a problem, much less do anything. Others wouldn’t want to risk making things worse by interfering. Do you step in and try to support the child or do you let him sink or swim? We felt that because John was being physically abused daily by his peers we had to step in simply to prevent serious injury. However, we also felt that the situation had inflicted damage beyond physical injury. What about John’s feelings about himself, his sense of self-worth? Weren’t we also responsible for those?

As a teacher, I believe in going through channels, so we decided to bring our son’s problem to the principal. Her response didn’t help at all. “John needs to get tough,” she said. Maybe, she suggested helpfully, we should send him to judo lessons, or perhaps move John to another section of the 7th grade.

After a great deal of consideration and discussion with John, we decided that he should remain in the same class and deal with the problem as best he could. Moving to another class would be running from his problems. That never works. We needed to find solutions.

The only solution that made sense to us was to confront the problem head on. We arranged to meet the students in the principal’s office, where I told them that while my wife and I respected their rights not to like or want to be associated with our child, we demanded they also respect his rights. If they participated in or caused any more beatings, on school grounds or off, they and their parents would end up in court explaining to a judge why our child couldn’t go to school without enduring beatings. Their parents were also notified.

I think one of the very important lessons children learn in school is that you can’t give in to a terrorist. A terrorist--child or adult--must be confronted. Even if one seems to lose in a confrontation, one can expect that the next time he will probably be left alone. Terrorists want people who will not fight back. They want people they can control because those people allow terrorists to be successful. Terrorist children are rarely class leaders. They are usually the children who most need guidance and who sorely need to do something--anything--well. While a few of these disruptive children are acting in response to abuse suffered at home, most of them are simply seeking attention.

After all, if a child fails at arithmetic but succeeds at terrorism, then it follows that his attempts at “success” will continue. As William Glasser writes in Schools Without Failure, there are levels of success in every area. Some children find a higher level of success with intimidation than with academics.

As a teacher, I have discovered that if I can find even one positive thing at which a problem child can be outstanding, then the battle is won. The teacher can offer praise, enhancing that child’s self-esteem and creating a positive avenue for the child to seek attention in the future.

But before we can help the terrorist child, parents and teachers need to begin thinking about how playground terrorism affects all children and how to spot it. In most school systems, the problem is ignored. But if we can recognize the problem and develop not only ways to isolate the troublemakers but also to encourage the victims to seek help, then schools will be happier, more effective places. Teachers need to find positive reinforcement for the “bad” students, and monitor the “good” ones for signs of negative peer pressure: depression, slipping grades, or uncharacteristic behavior. Schools and parents need to address the problem of terrorism before it leads to a long series of unhappy events such as our son suffered.

Our confrontation with John’s tormentors seemed to work. Apparently the boys were still young enough to fear adult authority. Of course, after the confrontation, when one of the terrorists stole John’s homework, our gentle son finally reached his boiling point and fought back for the first time with his own fists. Perhaps we stumbled on the necessary combination to let these children know we weren’t to be victimized. In any case, John was no longer physically threatened. But we still had to help heal the damage to his self-image.

We tried to supply all of the support for John that we could, for as long as it was needed. We tended to make much of little accomplishments such as chores performed well and improved daily grades. John spent a great deal of time with boys his own age who looked to him for leadership, in his Boy Scout troop, or in activities such as group rock concerts that we helped arrange as rewards. We encouraged him to spend time on activities where he could demonstrate his abilities without being scorned for having them. We let him know that his effort was appreciated. We wanted him to feel that he was doing a good job and to feel secure in his home and in himself.

At the end of the school year, John’s standardized-test results--in the 97th percentile nationally--showed that he indeed had learned. But more important, he had survived the year.

What happens to the victimized child who doesn’t have these supports? Will he survive the pressures of early adolescence? Maybe we need to take a closer look when we are told that playground terrorists are just “playing” with our children.

A version of this article appeared in the October 24, 1984 edition of Education Week as Confronting Playground Terrorists