By Caryl Helsel
I am writing to shed light on my family’s experience in Santa Monica. When we moved to Southern California two years ago, we specifically chose Santa Monica for many reasons — the schools had a good reputation, the community was known for being welcoming and accepting, it was walkable, it was a convenient commute to my job (under 40 minutes for L.A.) and the proximity to the beach was amazing.
We moved into the Grant Elementary School area in Sunset Park. Grant was a phenomenal experience for my son — Mrs. Smith was by far one of his favorite teachers ever. He learned a lot and his class was very accepting.
However, on the Pali science trip, something happened to my son at camp. We don’t fully understand the details, but apparently, something he did caused some of the boys to believe he was gay. Now whether my son is or is not gay doesn’t matter — the point is, the other boys believed he was. And that is when the bullying kicked into high gear.
Stop there for a moment and think about it — in one of the most tolerant and liberal places to live in the United States — one that should be accepting of anyone — my son started being horribly bullied because other boys interpreted his actions and said he was gay. Should that matter anywhere in 2016? Especially in Santa Monica, California?
As this camp was towards the end of the year, he was able to endure the rest of the year. One boy (not from his classroom) picked him up and dumped him on his head on purpose on the ball field, but other than that, to our knowledge, the bullying was not terrible at Grant because Mrs. Smith had her class under control and had taught her students about acceptance and welcoming people different than you.
Fast forward to the beginning of school last year … at John Adams Middle School (JAMS). We all know middle school is a difficult venture for the best of us — but what about those who are different? Are sensitive? Are transgender? Are gay? Have ADHD? Are whatever the world deems to be different? Shouldn’t a place like Santa Monica be the most tolerant and accepting place on earth?
My son immediately started telling us about bullying. He was having a very difficult time at school — the things that the kids were calling my son I cannot even repeat here. Imagine the worst slur and most horrible things that could be said to any child who is thought to be or who is gay … and make them 10 times worse and that is what these kids were calling my son every day, multiple times per day. There were several mornings my son curled up in a fetal position and cried so badly that he couldn’t go to school — so my husband or I had to take off work to stay home with him and try to calm him down. He was also having a difficult time paying attention in class. He was fearful every day.
We reported it to the school administration. We reported it to the counselor. We reported it to the teachers. One of them had the gall to say, “All kids are bullied in middle school — that is not an excuse for him not paying attention in class.” We reported specific bullies — two of them by name — to the school.
We thought about not letting him go on the Catalina trip, as we were very concerned about what might happen. But he wanted to go — don’t get me wrong — he did have some friends who were loyal and stuck by him from The Cove skatepark. He also had a friend who was a girl who constantly stuck up for him. One of his friends from The Cove even told the boys bullying him at lunch to “F!#% off.”
But we let him go because he wanted to go. He made friends with a boy from his school who is gay — his mom went on the trip to protect him. My husband and I couldn’t do that, so we let him go.
When we got to the drop-off that morning, we found out our son was placed in a cabin with one of the main bullies we had reported to the school. When we went to the counselor and the head of the science department, they said he should have noticed that and asked to be changed from that cabin before that morning. First of all … my son had asked to be placed with some of his friends. Why should he have to be in a different cabin? When we reported it, they said again, “Well, we can’t move him.” Secondly, the school knew this kid was bullying him and knew that this same kid dumped him on his head in 5th grade. So why didn’t they ensure he was in a safe place?
I contacted the school. My husband contacted the school. I sent an email pleading with them to move the bully and if they didn’t keep him safe, I would have to take further action against the school district. Finally, they ended up moving the bully — but not before they pulled my son out in front of everyone to talk to him and the head of the science department said, “I should send you home because of the email your mom sent this morning.” Seriously … ? Yes, let’s punish the people who are being bullied — that is just another form of bullying — and from a teacher no less.
We continued to have challenges with our son’s bullies the remainder of the school year. Just before Christmas, I witnessed 10 boys bully him — one of them literally picked him up and threw him against the brick wall. He fell down, then a few of them kicked him as he got himself back up to walk into school. I ran out of my car, leaving it running on Pearl Street — by the time I got to the boys, my son had gone in. I told them that was enough — this was going to stop today. I knew one of their mothers, so I contacted her immediately. I also contacted administration and the counselor again right away.
The school finally, finally took this seriously. One of the vice principals got involved. She was amazing. They did a full investigation — after which she called me and said, “I have to apologize to you — your son has been terrorized since his first day at our school, and I am very sorry.”
Then they changed his schedule, suspended a couple of boys for a few days, gave a larger group detention … the boys slowly stopped saying things to him when he went back after break.
Then I got a call that changed everything … the school called and said one of my son’s friends reported that he had talked about suicide. I contacted his counselor (we got him into a counselor in December for the bullying) and she asked for the school to do an assessment. So they did. He shrugged it off as a joke. But then when he got home that night, I gently asked him about it. He said, “Yes, I have thought of suicide. The boys at school made up a song telling me to kill myself and sang it to me every day since October. You said we were going to stay in Santa Monica until I graduated from high school, so I thought there was no way out.”
Thankfully … I was laid off of my job that week (probably a lot for missing work for my son) and got a severance package. My husband and I immediately pulled up roots and moved to Phoenix, where we could afford for me to home-school my son.
I ask … what the hell is going on in the homes of parents in Santa Monica that someone who their kids believe is gay is told to kill himself? Every day? Made up in a song that my son could sing back to me because he heard it every day?
I ask the community of Santa Monica — what are you going to do about this? I know that my son is not the only boy or girl who has experienced this. We have got to be better than this.
I don’t live in Santa Monica any longer, but I want this to come to light so that the people of Santa Monica can rise up and find a solution. Otherwise, someone else is not going to find out their child is suicidal until it is too late.