I saw this on BoingBoing, did some searches, and found some more detailed (and more ambivalent) coverage in a more local newspaper to the story, the Sydney (Australia) Morning Herald: "Bullied schoolboy may get $1m in damages" (Australian Associated Press, 5/14/07) and "He was bullied at school - now he'll walk away with $1 million" (Leonie Lamont, 5/15/07).
The long and short of it: back in 1994 and 1995, then 7 year old Australian child Benjamin Cox was a repeat victim of very severe violence from what is described as an "older, disturbed student." He complained to school authorities, then to his mother. His mother complained to school authorities, then to the state board of education. What they were both told was to get over it, that bullying was part of growing up, and that being choked into unconsciousness and beaten in the face so severely he had teeth knocked out was good for young Benjamin, that that kind of thing "builds character." Rather than allow him to be bullied, his mother did the same thing my parents did under similar circumstances, only much sooner; she pulled him out of that school. He did better in the new school, but never fully recovered, and now that he's 18 he is on lifetime disability for PTSD, depression, and anxiety disorder. (Not coincidentally, perhaps, a 2/3rds overlap with my own diagnosis.) Now that he has his formal disability ruling and diagnosis, and that he's old enough to file suit in his own name, he and his mom have sued the state school board and the school for refusing to even try to protect him, for taking the bully's side. The judge found for the plaintiff, awarding $213,000 AUS for pain and suffering and lifetime payments, over time, amounting to about $800,000 AUS. The school insists that they had no legal responsibility or authority to prevent bullying back in 1974 and 1975, blame Cox's mother more than the bullying for his mental illnesses, and is considering appealing the verdict.
It shouldn't surprise any of you who know anything about me that I have an opinion about this. And while I was formulating that opinion for this journal entry, I had a new insight into my own similar problems, and into my reaction to the Columbine Massacre.
Remember my continuing to argue with my former doctor, minidoc, about whether or not I have intrusive memories or unwanted automatic reactions to events that trigger flashbacks to past traumas? I argue that I don't, she argues that I do? MiniDoc is wise, perhaps, because I think she may have picked up an important clue out of something I've said a very few times: I forgave the actual bullies themselves years ago. In fact, I had a rather dramatic demonstration of that a few years back. I was on a job site, and another guy who was there looked at my name badge, looked at me, and said, "I know that name, and you look familiar, but I can't place it? Where did you go to school?" After playing the St. Louis game of rattling off our respective schools, we found out that we overlapped by one year, a year that we were both at C.R. Kirby Junior High School in North County. And the second that we both figured this out, I saw growing horror dawn on him, and he got very frightened and very nervous, because we both realized why he remembered me: he was one of the gang that tried to kill me. Only now I was much, much bigger than him. I let him off the hook. I hinted that I knew who he was, said that that was a long time ago, then changed the subject and let him walk away. Because I don't blame him, not any more, and I haven't in a very long time. He was 14 at the time. By and large, we don't hold 14 year old children legally responsible for their actions, and for good reason. And he, and the rest of the bullies who attacked me over and over again, were only acting upon what the adults in the school were encouraging them to feel towards me, were only doing what the culture around them told them was right to do.
No, the people I blamed then, and still blame, are the adults. I blame the adults who put him up to it, by singling me out for intimidation because my good grades were imperiling his beloved athletic team's more troubled star players (they graded on the curve). I blame the adults who taught him that jingoistic tribal identification with "our team" was more important than anything else in life. But no, more than anything else, I blame the teachers and principals who knew what was happening to me, and who turned away from my suffering, who would have let me die, who told me that it was my responsibility to find a way to placate or subdue my attackers without any help from them. My betrayal by them hurt me far, far worse than all the knives and chains that were waved at me, all the shoes and boots that kicked me, all the punches in the face and in the gut, hurt me even worse than the baseball bat to the ribs that was meant to kill me. The more I think about it, the more I realize that the anger that some very sensitive people sense deep down inside me is at them, because what they did, I can never forgive. That's why I leapt up and screamed at the television when the assistant principal of Columbine High School said on 60 Minutes that Eric and Dylan had never filed any violence complaints against the school's athletes, "and if they had, I wouldn't have believed them, because our athletes are champions, and champions don't behave like that." It is that implacable indifference to my suffering by those I held responsible for protecting me that I flash back to whenever I feel threatened by bureaucratic indifference or hostility, that puts me in bed for up to 36 hours of bleak catatonic terror myself.
I have been trying my whole life to understand what motivated them to value my own life and safety as little as the New South Wales school system valued Benjamin Cox's. I suspect that if I could ever make myself understand, I could begin to forgive, and perhaps some of the anger would begin to drain away. Maybe I'm wrong about that. All I've got so far is a hypothesis that to the neurotypical, tribal identification rituals like school sports really are the school's most important mission, because they prepare people for a life where they will be expected to cheer for whatever tribe they're in's top warriors for the rest of their life, because the consequences for failing to do so sufficiently convincingly can be career ending. And perhaps that the school felt that it lacked the resources to do everything it would like, and protecting the weak from the cruel, while important to them, wasn't important enough to assign the resources to. Maybe. I can't make myself believe it, though. No, the piece of evidence that's missing from any claim that there was a rational, humane reason to let Benjamin Cox be choked half to death and to let me be attacked by a gang with baseball bats and bicycle chains and knives is that if there were any rationality or humanity in them, there would have at least been some visible sympathy for the victims, wouldn't there? Not the cold valuing of the bullies' lives over his and mine and Dylan's and Eric's and all the rest of the victims that says, ""You lose some kids and keep some."