Shunned because you are disadvantaged

I’m a Solution Coach in the Oakland Unified School District. Recently Emilio was referred to me. Emilio is ten years old and did not want to come to school any more because the other kids in the fifth grade were picking on him. I had noticed Emilio, always alone in recess. He is an unusual kid but things now had gotten way more intense than him just self-isolating.

I asked Emilio what was happening. He told me that when he joins the lunch line in the school cafeteria, the other students make a big deal of getting away from him. They tell him that his clothes are dirty and that he smells and that they will catch a disease if they stand in the lunch line him or sit near him in class or touch the pencil that he is using. There is a lot of laughter and drama. Emlio claims that there are some good things in this – he always gets his lunch first. But underneath the brave face, Emilio is feeling considerable shame and is very lonely.

My job as Emilio’s Solution Coach® was to bring the bullying students together with some positive allies and walk them in to Emilio’s shoes so that they get what it is like to be him. When I did this they pushed back, as I expected, about him coming to school every Monday unwashed and in dirty clothes. Their suggested solutions that focused on blaming Emilio e.g. I can tell him to take a shower or wash his hands. I needed an intervention that would stimulate their empathy. I asked them to look at the reasons why Emilio might find it challenging to come to school clean. One of the kids said their water had been turned off this summer, and maybe that is what happened to Emilio. Another student said that some of his friends had no shower in their house, only a tub that they fill with water, which is quite a process and they rarely do it. A third student wondered whether Emilio’s family was homeless. The more that the kids discussed the possible cause, and the more they could wrap their heads around Emilio’s situation, the more empathetic they became.

When I met the Solution Team® for a second time they had clearly thought about Emilio having less opportunity than they. The steps they had taken had been subtle. One of them started sitting at the same table as Emilio at lunch. Others were staying in the lunch line with Emilio. This week Emilio came to school with gel in his hair. This small sign that Emilio is trying to fix himself up and take care of himself was very meaningful to the Solution Team®. They are seeing results and makes them want to work harder to help him.

We had the 3rd meeting on Friday and it went beautifully. Emilio came with a new haircut and each Solution Team member apologized to him for their part in the original teasing and he was able to thank them for their help with his problem. As kids get older there is increasing identification with shoes, clothes and electronic equipment. They tease each other around material possessions. Students can be very tough on the students who come from homes less opportunity and less attentive parents.

Oakland Unified School District is a high-minority, high-poverty, large urban district in northern California. Donald Carter is a No Bully Solution Coach® and restorative justice coordinator in Oakland Unified Schools.