Victimizing the Victim
Author(s): Rhonda Williams, Ed.D., LPC, NCC
March 1, 2009
Recently in my school a group of fourth-grade boys attacked a fifth-grade African-American girl on the playground after school one day. They kicked and hit her and called her racial slurs. She ended up in the hospital for a few days. The boys were expelled from the school; however, one of the boys' parents demanded their son be able to come back to school. (The reason for this demand is unknown). The girl had returned to school by this time, and she had been told the boys had all been expelled. I wanted to talk to the girl before this particular boy was allowed to return so she could at share how she was feeling and how she might respond to his return. However, administration told me I couldn’t discuss this boy’s return with her because of some legal issues. And the district lawyer said she couldn’t be warned because she had said some things back to the boys during the attack and therefore didn’t warrant any notice of the boy's return to school. This decision disturbs be greatly; not being allowed to talk with the girl about the pending return of her attacker seemed unethical.
This is a tough situation, but it’s important to focus on the many ethical considerations in this scenario. We must consider advocacy for the student, collaboration with administration, systems change and social justice.
Referring once again to the preamble of the ASCA Ethical Standards for School Counselors: “Each person has the right to receive the information and support needed to move toward self-direction and self-development and affirmation within one’s group identities, with special care being given to students who have historically not received adequate educational services: students of color, low socio-economic students, students with disabilities and students with nondominant language backgrounds.”
This professional mandate speaks directly to the necessity of taking a stand for students, especially for underrepresented students. ASCA Ethical Standard A.1.a. clearly states that the school counselor “has a primary obligation to the student, who is to be treated with respect as a unique individual.” Certainly, it is important to support the child who has been victimized in this situation. Having the school counselor’s support may be the difference between the student’s recovery and further racial victimization. Telling this young girl that one of her attackers may be returning to school may be going against the lawyer’s directive, but a proactive school counselor can certainly role play how she might respond or react if she ever sees or has any interaction with any of her attackers again. Helping her process the events will help with healing. Giving her suggestions of how to respond in the future will be empowering.
It’s be important to also consider how to support the attacker. Certainly the attack came from some type of misperception. How a school counselor can change that perception will be of great importance to all of the children in that school. From the individual perspective, your support and understanding will be of primary importance for either of the students.
However, this begs the question, how do you work with the student who was attacked without disclosing the pending return of one of her attackers and still abide by administration’s demands? As stated in the ASCA Ethical Standards D.1.d, “The professional school counselor delineates and promotes the counselor’s role and function in meeting the needs of those served. Counselors will notify appropriate officials of conditions that may limit or curtail their effectiveness in providing programs and services.” In an attempt to support the student, while at the same time maintaining administrative requirements, you may need to share the Ethical Standards with the principal and the school lawyer for their edification. It may help administration understand the value of advocating for the child’s needs. According to the school lawyer it seems you may not have all the necessary information in this case. Although that may be true, it’s still important to balance the advocacy for the student while not undermining the administration requirements.
It may also be helpful to remind administration of lawsuits against schools that were unresponsive to sexual or racial harassment under Title IX of the Education Amendments of 1972 and Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. The Office of Civil Rights offers many suggestions on prevention and support for bullying and harassment, racial and/or sexual, as well as case studies regarding harassment and hate crimes. This may open the door for you to be proactive in promoting social justice.
Advocacy and Change
This scenario offers opportunity for advocacy and systems change. Since the school lawyer has spoken, it would be easy to throw up our proverbial hands in this case and say our job is done. However, that would be taking away our professional power as social justice advocates and agents of change. Viewing this from a systems level, the professional school counselor must also consider the null curriculum, (unspoken messages sent to students without direct teaching). Many students will know pieces of what happened if not the whole story. Children can’t be left with the message that racial attacks are okay, nor that the perpetrators won’tbe punished.
In the book “Courageous Conversations About Race,” authors Singleton and Linton reinforce that systemic change for equity and anti-racism requires leadership. They specifically encourage school leaders “to establish a culture in which the agreements, conditions and compass of Courageous Conversations are practiced and eventually internalized by all educators. Educators, therefore, need to engage in conversation about how racial stereotypes ‘in the air’ impact student performance and what educators might do to identify and mitigate these harmful messages.”
As disturbing as this scenario may be to the individual, a professional school counselor must put aside personal reactions and think in a systemic manner that will support the individual student as well as the administrative mandate while still generating change within the system. By creating systems change, the impact will hopefully have a big enough impact to even help the attacker and his peers understand the meaning of their actions, while also establishing a cultural awareness within the entire school.