Here in North Carolina, Buncombe County Schools are getting some unwanted attention. When 9 year-old Grayson Bruce brought a My Little Pony lunch bag to school (featuring Rainbow Dash) he got shoved around and harassed by other kids. The school district’s response was to tell the family his lunch bag was a “trigger for bullying” so he was not allowed to bring it to school anymore.
Click on the photo of Grayson with his lunch bag to watch the local ABC news story about this and/or read the transcript. Grayson says, “They’re taking it a little too far, with punching me, pushing me down, calling me horrible names, stuff that really shouldn’t happen.”
A few points of irony: Buncombe County is home to Asheville, arguably one of North Carolina’s bastions of liberalism. The show My Little Pony is all about “the bonds of friendship.” Grayson is hardly unusual: there is a worldwide male fan base for My Little Pony, fans who range from children to adults and call themselves “bronies.”
This is not news; almost TWO YEARS ago I collected links to news stories about bronies; today if you do a Google search on the word you get Wikipedia pages, a documentary film, magazine articles, lists of famous bronies, and the assertion that it’s now surpassed Minecraft as the largest fandom in the world.
But if the Buncombe County Schools aren’t out and about enough to know any of this, maybe they might have heard of a story closer to home, that of Michael Morones, an 11 year-old North Carolina boy who apparently attempted suicide because of the bullying he experienced at school for being a My Little Pony fan. Michael was in sixth grade at Zebulon Middle School (yeah, Wake County Schools, calling you out, too). He’s been in a medically-induced coma since January 23 and is now being assessed for the brain damage caused by oxygen deprivation.
Or maybe the Buncombe County School Board might at least be familiar with its own policies, posted on its web site. I’ve highlighted portions, School Board, in case that helps you notice them:
Philosophy: The primary responsibilities of the public schools in a democratic society are to guide children and young adults in the acquisition of knowledge, to recognize and appreciate human differences, to equip students with essential skills and attitudes for living a productive, useful, and satisfying life, and to develop in students the desire to be lifelong learners.
Citizenship and Character Education: Each school should promote positive character traits. The character traits should include, but are not limited to, courage, good judgment, integrity, civility, kindness, perseverance, responsibility, tolerance, self-discipline, respect for school personnel, responsibility for school safety, service to others, and good citizenship.
Bullying policy: Buncombe County Schools strives to foster a climate of respect and personal responsibility among students, and does not tolerate bullying in any form.
Really, Buncombe County? Grayson’s lunch bag is a “trigger for bullying,” so he should leave it home? I guess if there’s a boy who ballet dances, he just shouldn’t mention it? If there’s a girl who likes having a buzz cut, she should be required to wear a wig? When your solution to someone being bullied for his personal expression is to curtail that expression, you are saying, “Well, we recognize that there are human differences, but we’d prefer not to be confronted with them so if you could just keep them hidden, that’d be great.” I don’t think a “stay in the closet” policy qualifies as “appreciating human differences.”
One school official reportedly told Grayson to hide his lunch bag in his backpack. This message, “Don’t let anyone know who you are (or else you’ll get what’s coming to you)” leads families to say to their children,”It’s OK that you are who you are as long as nobody knows.” Across the country parents are preemptively doing the school district’s dirty work for it — telling their sons they can play with Barbies but only at home, trying to explain why they mustn’t wear their Little Mermaid nightgowns to school on pajama day. Why? Because they don’t want them to be bullied and they don’t want them to be DEAD.
I understand that some of us live in places where we really do have to fear our children’s safety, where keeping them underground feels genuinely necessary. But I would urge all of us to consider when we are really not rocking the boat as a capitulation to what makes people comfortable, and remember that keeping our children underground does not always keep them safe. Internalizing the message that there is something so wrong with me that I have to keep it hidden at all times and at all costs does its own damage. There is nothing wrong with our sons and daughters. If we really believe that, we need to push our schools toward understanding and true embrace of diversity, not push our kids toward silence, shame, or an inauthentic life.
Usually I try to be thoughtful about whatever I write in this space. I mull things over, let them sit (sometimes until they are no longer “trending,” which is why I’m not a great blogger)! But I find myself so angry this morning that I can hardly see straight. So let me close by focusing on something positive. A Support for Grayson Facebook page went live on March 10; this morning it has 51,742 likes. (Click the graphic to like it and read updates.)
The page’s message is “we need to empower children to be who they are.” One commenter says, “I have a 15 year old daughter who ‘looks like a boy.’ . . . Some would say her life will be harder if she ‘chooses’ to look this way. I say I can’t imagine anything more difficult than NOT being who you feel in your heart you are!”
To contribute to Michael Morones’ extensive medical costs, visit michaelmorones.org.
See also: Top Ten Ways North Carolina School Could Have Responded by Carrie Goldman