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Candler student isn’t first ‘Pony’ bullying victim

Candler RS

Durham boy who attempted suicide wakes from coma

By Roger McCredie-Last week, as the story of Grayson Bruce’s bullying ordeal at Candler Elementary School turned the megawatt glare of social and national media attention on Buncombe County, another story with the same ingredients continued to unfold half the state away.

Grayson, of course, is the nine-year-old who suffered several bullying incidents related to his carrying a blue plush” My Little Pony” backpack to school. His story went viral not so much for the bullying itself but for the school’s reaction to it. When Grayson’s mother complained and sought help from a school guidance officer, she said she was advised to tell her son it would be best to leave the cartoon-pony book bag – a product spinoff of the “My Little Pony” TV cartoon — at home. The school administration then made it official: Grayson was forbidden to bring the bag to school because it might “trigger bullying.”

The story erupted on social media. A site supporting Grayson was set up on Facebook and received more than 65,000 “likes.” Blogs and online news services picked up the story and finally the networks weighed in. Grayson was interviewed on “Good Morning America” and ABC news, and was praised by conservative radio personality Glenn Beck, who brought a “My Little Pony” toy along to show solidarity when he interviewed Grayson. A supportive tweet even came from “My Little Pony” ’s creator, Lauren Faust.

Meanwhile, 130 miles away:

And last Friday, even as this torrent of negative publicity was making tourist and development-driven Buncombe County very uncomfortable, 11-year-old Michael Morales opened his eyes – for the first time in nearly two months — in a Charlotte hospital room.

Michael had been in a coma since January 23, when he hanged himself from his own bunk bed in Durham after having been repeatedly bullied at school because he identified himself as a Brony.

“Brony” is the term for a boy who likes “My Little Pony.” The cartoon, which has been around for years, was originally designed to appeal primarily to girls, but has attracted a growing number of male followers.

Though not on the same scale as Grayson’s, Michael’s case also attracted international attention, mostly via the Internet. A fund was set up to help pay for his extended hospital care and a nonprofit anti-bullying organization was set up in his name. Michael remained for several weeks at WakeMed in Raleigh before being moved to Charlotte. He is described as “making good progress” in terms of restorative brain function, but doctors say it will be many weeks more before his condition can be completely evaluated and full therapy begun.

Wake County school board officials have avoided commenting on either Michael’s suicide attempt or whether the bullying that led to it has been investigated or dealt with. In 2000 a student at Wake County’s Zebulon Middle School hanged himself in the school’s gymnasium. The boy’s suicide was attributed to mental distress brought on by bullying.

And back in Buncombe …

People began to take sides.

Several Candler area residents interviewed by WLOS-TV opined that the entire incident was “blown up out of proportion” as one put it. Numerous Candler Elementary parents aggressively supported Principal Steve Chandler, saying he had acted correctly in ordering Grayson to leave his controversial backpack at home. Then a page entitled “Prayers for Candler Elementary” appeared on Facebook. The eponymous prayers sought support for the school and its administration, but also contained numerous comments suggesting that Grayson and his mother, Noreen, had deliberately contrived the whole backpack scenario to garner personal attention.

Other posts said that Grayson, at the very least, had brought the bullying on himself. Former Candler principal Bev Collier was quoted as posting, “ … there are some children who behave in such a way that sets themselves up to gain negative attention and this leads to bullying.” She added, “The news media leads us to believe that the school ignored the bullying and focused on removing the toy that brought attention to the child that claims to be the victim of bullying.”

Other commenters on the site called Grayson “obnoxious” and his mother “white trash.”

Like the original story, the “prayers” page attracted the notice of national media, whose pundits were mostly horrified and scathingly attacked the school’s supporters. A typical rebuke came from Jenna Karvanidis, a columnist for “Chicago Now,” who said, “Look, Candler Elementary, you’re not going to win this one. The school made an error. It doesn’t mean the world wants to roast you on a stick. It means you need to own your mistake, then set a precedent not to do that anymore [instead of] creating a prayer page full of insults and speculation.”

And a Facebook follower said, “Being bullied by children is one thing, but having that reinforced by the adults in the school is another thing entirely. The school and county have anti-bullying policies in place- they failed Grayson, and ultimately the other children at the school.”

Local radio talk show personality Pete Kaliner said, ““As we discussed this topic on [his afternoon call-in] show last week, I began to get numerous e-mails and phone calls from parents who said the story in the media was not the full story. Among other things, they said the principal handled the matter correctly.”

Even as the exchange of fire escalated, Grayson and Noreen Bruce met privately with Buncombe County School Board Chairman Tony Baldwin and Director of Student Services David Thompson. Following the meeting, the school system issued a statement confirming that Grayson would be allowed to bring his book bag back to school. The statement read, in part, “We have appreciated the opportunity to meet with the Bruce family and discuss the issues. We sincerely regret that the issue of being told to leave the book bag at home was perceived as blaming Grayson. While that was not the intent, the perception became reality. We support Grayson bringing the book bag to school.”

Noreen Bruce said she, her son and the administrators had had “a real heart-to-heart talk” that left her feeling “much better.” She indicated she and Thompson will work together to organize a parents’ advisory council on bullying.

Buncombe County Schools has an extensive anti-bullying policy in place – the state legislature mandated such policies for all schools in 2009 – but although the policy defines “bullying” in great detail and offers suggestions for school-parent-student interaction designed to prevent it, it lays out no framework of disciplinary action to be taken against violators.

Assistant Communications Director James Rhodes told the Tribune, “There is no policy on how to discipline students who bully. Each incident is treated on an individual basis. Defining bad behavior as bullying can be difficult at times because there is nuance to every situation.”

The Buncombe County Schools website advises:

“Buncombe County Schools strives to foster a climate of respect and personal responsibility among students, and does not tolerate bullying in any form. Anyone with knowledge of a situation involving bullying can either report the incident to school officials, or if preferred, may report the situation anonymously by either going to the school’s homepage to complete an online form or by calling our Anti-Bullying Hotline at 225-5292 to leave a message.”

Candler Elementary’s own website has a link titled, “Report Bullying.” The link leads directly back to the Buncombe County site’s message above.

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