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Thursday, June 1, 2006 06:25 am

When Chatham girls go wild

Parents object to heavy-handed school administrators

Next to “like,” I believe the most overused word in the English language is “ironic.” It’s, like, you turn 12, and you learn, like, this cool word, and you suddenly realize that, like, your whole life is chockfull of irony. OK, I’ll stop with the “like.” Let’s go straight to the irony. Last Thursday was “Tag Day” at Glenwood Middle School. It’s not an official event; it’s a kid-generated end-of-the-year custom in which marker-wielding adolescents attempt to scribble numbers on each other. It’s a tradition that the Grown Ups try their best to snuff out because, after all, markers can lead to, well, marks and stuff. The tagging started in the cafeteria, which serves as the holding pen where all the kids are corralled between the time they’re dropped off and the time classes begin at 8:10 a.m. Almendra Rodriguez asked her friend Kate Turasky whether she could mark an 11 on her arm (2011 being the year they’ll graduate) and Kate said sure. As they were walking to their lockers, a teacher questioned Kate about the marks, so Almendra — using the kind of creativity only a 13-year-old can conjure to try to evade punishment — added a curved line under the 11, thereby creating a smiley face. The dodge didn’t work. They ended up in the principal’s office — Almendra, Kate, and so many other tagging suspects that some kids had to sit on the floor. Kate was in the office so long, she missed all but 10 minutes of her history final. Almendra took two final exams in the office before being sent home with a two-day suspension for “bullying.” Almendra is an immigrant from Chile. Her mother, Veronica Luz Espina — a teacher in the Riverton School District and an instructor at University of Illinois at Springfield — immediately contacted every media outlet and the ACLU to complain that her daughter’s harsh punishment had more to do with her refusal to participate in the Pledge of Allegiance than any mark she drew on Kate’s arm. And though there’s no official comment from GMS, Espina’s theory sounds plausible in the face of an otherwise perplexing scenario. Maybe it’s just me, but I have a hard time wrapping my mind around the concept that a completely consensual smiley face — rendered in washable purple ink — could constitute bullying. I left four messages for GMS administrators, asking for their side of this story, but no one returned my call. I browsed the student handbook, but the section on bullying doesn’t mention anything about smiley faces drawn by a friend. Amy Mann, mom of Kate — the “victim” here — met with administrators Friday to protest Almendra’s punishment. “They asked me, ‘Well, do you want her to come home with drawings on her?’ And, honestly, I don’t care!” Mann says. “These are good kids. They don’t do anything wrong, and they don’t hurt anybody.” Here’s where the first irony comes in: Last year, Mann says, Kate was the victim of real and relentless bullying, and GMS administrators wouldn’t do anything about it. “There was a big group of people, spreading rumors that I was suicidal and Gothic, telling me I should just go kill myself,” Kate says. The bullies happened to be the kind of kids Kate isn’t (and doesn’t want to be) — “very preppy, very sporty, perky all the time and pretty popular.” Some of them had been her friends, back when they all listened to rap, before she started listening to Nirvana. “I wasn’t acting different. Maybe I wasn’t as perky as they are, but I never was,” Kate says. “Yeah, I wore [dark] makeup last year. I don’t do it as bad this year. But I’m not Gothic or suicidal.” The administration apparently developed the same view of Kate — as a scary, suicidal freak — because when she left her journal in her science class earlier this year, all heck broke loose. “My daughter has never been in trouble. No lie. Kindergarten all the way up,” Mann says. “And I got a call a month and a half ago that she had made a threat against her school.” Responding to an urgent summons to the principal’s office, Mann and her husband were presented with a notebook in which Kate had outlined a fiendish plot for the last day of school. First they would shut off the power by throwing some switch they found in the gym, and then they would throw confetti, spray Silly String, and write with lipstick on the bathroom mirrors, “School’s out for summer!” “They were treating this like a Columbine-style threat,” Mann says. “They wanted her to scrub floors with the janitors for three days after school — for something she hadn’t even done.” The family finally plea-bargained Kate’s punishment down to a Saturday detention. Here’s another irony: This year, the bullying stopped — not because the bullies got suspended but because, Mann says, her daughter “evolved.” “Last year, I cared more what everybody thought of me. This year, I really don’t,” Kate says. “I have a lot of better friends, and I couldn’t care less what those girls say about me anymore.” One of her better friends is Almendra, the “bully” who drew the smiley on her arm last Thursday. Kate is so, like, terrified of Almendra, she invited her to spend the whole weekend at her house.


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