From a distance, fifth grader Matthew De Luca looks like any other eleven year old. But these days, Matthew, and millions of other students like him, have fallen victim to a rash of anti-bullying campaigns. Increasingly, elementary schools have taken a zero tolerance approach, enacting one strike suspensions for wedgies, noogies, and even simple taunting.
But while millions have cheered these policies designed to make our schools safe spaces, few have asked about the fate of bullies. What outlet do these at-risk children have to deal with their emotional scars?
“It’s been hard,” admits Matthew during our recess interview. “I mean, school used to be where I shined. I’d cut the line at the slide, maybe throw an elbow or talk some smack about a kid’s mom, and everyone would just step aside. I was a king. Where am I gonna get that kind of validation now?” Matthew’s stomach growls and he becomes visibly angry. “And that’s the other thing. It’s not like when they suspended me for stealing Timmy’s lunch, my mom suddenly remembered to start packing me one. I haven’t seen her for days.”
Educators like Dr. Martin Gunderhoff, Matthew’s Principal, are quick to explain that schools should be places children feel safe going to, but Matthew is quick to reject this argument. “Hell, I used to love coming to school. That was seven hours where my dad couldn’t beat me or tell me his life was ruined when my mother forgot to take the pill. But now, someone’s always on my back.”
Dr. Gunderhoff did not respond to requests for an interview, but he did issue a statement through the school lunch lady that Matthew was in serious danger of being expelled for “acting out due to a bad attitude and difficulty adjusting to the new regime of mutual respect.” Matthew scoffs in response. “You see the shit I have to put up with? At least my dad just smacked me instead of slinging these belittling euphemisms.”
Matthew’s future now seems uncertain. Asked about his plans, De Luca responds, “Who knows? Gotta find someplace that gets me. Understands where I’m coming from.”
He looks out at the playground, dozens of happy children peppered with a handful of loaners like Mathew under the watchful, even oppressive, gaze of school monitors. “Maybe a gang,” Matthew says. “Know where I can get a gun?”