Friday, April 4, 2008

Of Storms and Bullies' Pictures

Well, the weather can always upstage one’s feeble attempts to vent, can’t it?

I began the day writing up a tempest. An actual one arrived in the evening. I am concerned about the reports of injuries. It is often those who live in flimsy housing who suffer the most in storms like this, and some reports from outside the city are suggesting at least one death in a trailer park.

The several hours that the storms were making their way through the city were anxious, with the anxiety heightened by the incessant siren blowing atop the hill nearest us, to indicate a tornado had been spotted. Thank God for cell phones at times like this. We have given one to my elderly aunt to help her remain in touch.

And it came in handy last night, when she lost power and trees fell in her yard. It appears that at least one tornado passed right over her neighborhood, and she had no idea of the falling trees until a neighbor came to check on her and reassure himself she was unharmed. After the storms that devastated the oldest part of the city a decade ago, we heard reports from friends whose houses were damaged, about how quickly the tornado hits, and how one can be in the midst of it and not even know it is happening.

My nephew Luke was working at one of his father’s chain restaurants when a tornado demolished a business across the street. The last reports we had were that he was unharmed, but unable to make it home due to the congestion of traffic following the storms.

It seems strange to me that one can now be in the midst of a storm, of a crisis of major proportions, and still in contact with loved ones by cell phones, texting, or the internet. This is both a blessing and curse of modern technology, isn’t it? The accounts of people calling family from the flights headed to the twin towers on 9/11, or calling from the burning buildings, haunt me still. It is wonderful that we can establish contact at such moments. It is also horrifying.

My sister-in-law’s pithy verdict on the storm and its existential import: “A reminder that the only thing I can control in life is the earrings I choose to wear each day.” My sister-in-law had gone to a dinner at the Clinton School last night, and as she stepped outside after the event, remarked to her group, “Isn’t it a lovely evening?” And then came the storms, like the lion on the fold.

Before the storms arrived, I was thinking about a story from yesterday’s northwest Arkansas edition of our statewide daily newspaper, the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette. This updates the Billy Wolfe school bullying saga. This article by Scott Davis and Dustin Tracy is entitled “Who’s the Bully?” (see According to this report, a number of students in Billy Wolfe’s school—including two who admit having assaulted Billy Wolfe and who were suspended from school for doing so, Ian Teeters and Benny Burk—maintain Billy Wolfe had previously bullied them.

This update to the Billy Wolfe story is noteworthy for a number of reasons. First, if there is anything to the revised report of this story of bullying, it’s important for me to note the revisions—and the more complex background to the account of this young man’s bullying—since I have surveyed the New York Times account on this blog.

But second, it’s also instructive to note that stories of school bullying often involve conflicting accounts, in which the victimizers sometimes try to paint themselves as the victim. It’s important that those of us concerned about school bullying be aware of this common thread running through stories of school bullying.

Just last week, there were reports from the Metro-Midtown Alternative High School in Wichita, Kansas, that an openly gay student, Jimmy Iniguez, who was charged by school officials with having assaulted another student in the bathroom there in February, had been suspended and was facing expulsion. The news reports filed last week stated that Jimmy Iniguez denied having assaulted the other student. That student was, in fact, prepared to testify on Jimmy Iniguez’s behalf in hearings before the school board.

Iniguez maintained his innocence, and charged the school with discrimination against him because of his sexual orientation. Sexual orientation is not a protected category in definitions of discrimination that govern school board decisions in this school district (see

After a hearing, school officials have exonerated Iniguez of the harassment charge and allowed him to return to school (see Due to this case—and the precipitous decision of school officials to suspend this student, though the evidence for the purported harassment was thin, indeed—the school district is now considering adding sexual orientation to its non-discrimination policy (

What’s to be learned from this story? In the first place, that school officials are still quick to blame a gay (or gay-tagged) student who is himself sometimes the victim of abuse, when allegations of harassment are made. It appears Iniguez’s allegation that the school initially acted with prejudice against him were correct.

These patterns may be more entrenched in the heartland of America. And stories of this sort are likely to become more common as gay youth attain self-confidence about disclosing their identity in places in which such disclosures have not been welcome in the past. To protect these youth, our school systems need to catch up to the social reality that youth are declaring their sexual orientation at earlier and earlier ages. Schools also need to abandon the reflex reaction that tries, somehow, to twist stories of assault, such that the gay or gay-tagged youth becomes the perpetrator of violence rather than its object.

In the case of Billy Wolfe, to my knowledge, no one has denied the account of the facebook site entitled “Every One Hates Billy Wolfe,” which sought to foment violence against this boy because he was a “bitch” and a “homosexual.” If that facebook site did exist (and I have every reason to believe it did), it seems to me that anyone trying now to paint Billy Wolfe as the agitator in the incidents in which he was assaulted has an uphill battle. The preponderance of evidence suggests to me that the torments he endured were the result of organized bullying, and that this bullying was premised at least in part on charges about his purported lack of gender conformity.

School systems need to take this kind of bullying very seriously, to be much more pro-active when it begins, and not to lend credence to the allegations of victimizers that they themselves are the victims.

Meanwhile, re: the Billy Wolfe story, I am continuing to reserve judgment, while I also continue to express concern about certain well-established patterns in a particular type of school bullying—a type involving assaults by other boys on a boy tagged as gender-inappropriate. There’s too much in this story that fits that well-established pattern for me to conclude comfortably that Billy Wolfe deserved his licks from these bullies.

For instance, bloggers at an article called "Bullying Makes the Front Page" by Brett Singer at's website have published a link to the facebook site of Ian Teeters, one of the youths accused of beating up Billy Wolfe. The article is . The facebook link it provides is The picture I pull up when I visit that url inevitably makes me wonder what is going on in the bullying of Billy Wolfe.

It shows an Ian Teeters who looks considerably older than Billy Wolfe (though I believe they are the same age) posed beside a girl I assume is his girlfriend. When I compare it with the pictures published in the Times article last week, showing Billy Wolfe with a black eye, and with other pictures of him that have circulated on the internet, I cannot help wondering about the psychological and sociological background of this bullying story. On the one hand, there’s a willowy, rather defenseless looking boy with a blackened eye; on the other hand, I see a picture of a mustachioed boy who appears much more worldly wise, much more physically mature than Billy Wolfe, posed with a girl I take to be his girlfriend.

What really is going on here, with the Billy Wolfe bullying? Is Ian Teeters’s story that his violence is a response to Billy Wolfe’s credible?

My concern about the complexity of this story—and how it seems to fit certain well-known patterns of bullying of boys tagged as gender-inappropriate—is not diminished when I read that Teeters is "lead vocalist" in an "alternative/death metal" band in Fayetteville: see

I certainly do not want to discount out of hand the possibility that Billy Wolfe—or any other boy bullied in similar circumstances—might lash out against those doing the bullying. I do not want to suggest that these bullied youth are all saints.

I do, however, propose—and very strongly so—that parents, schools, and the culture at large stop giving the benefit of the doubt to bullies, in cases like this. The identifying marks of this particular kind of bullying are now too clearly discernible, for us to continue operating out of old models of analysis.

This kind of bullying is not just boys being boys. It is not a survival of the fittest game in which a too-sensitive boy needs to be taught male mores by boys more skilled at passing as macho men. It is certainly not a matter of uppity little sissies needing to learn their place, and earning their lumps by smarting off to the guardians of morality and social order.

Our schools—we ourselves—need to become wiser regarding the Billy Wolfe kind of school bullying. When violence follows violence, and when victims lash out after repeated acts of torment in which those delegated by society to guard and educate them do nothing, we all pay a very high price for justifying this kind of school bullying.

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