my BULLYING experience

24 January 2017
 
Up until yesterday, I was an academic scholar at Sevenoaks School, one of the top schools in the country.  I mention this because it was a great source of pride and accomplishment. Being a student there is an achievement for anyone, let alone an August-born child with Asperger’s Syndrome, dyslexia and dyspraxia.
 
Last year, I was happy there. I had a small group of friends and was doing well academically. To my delight, I got the top end-of-year exam grades in history and math out of my class of 165 kids. I could not have finished Year 9 on a higher note.
 
You may be asking yourself why I would leave a school I loved and worked so hard to get into, in the middle of a GCSE school year. I am about to tell you, but I suggest you buckle your seat belt because it is going to be a very bumpy ride.
 
I returned to school in September full of excitement and anticipation. Little did I know what was soon to befall me.
 
My best friend, X, had become best friends with Y and they began to belittle, humiliate and taunt me with endless snide and disparaging comments. The harder I tried to win them over, the more vicious they became. They called me pathetic, claimed I didn’t have any friends and when I objected, told me that any friends I had could only be imaginary. X, in particular, made very hurtful comments about my disabilities. He told my classmates that my reasons for not doing sport did not add up. He claimed that the only explanation for why I got the academic scholarship over him was because Sevenoaks School needed to give it to a "disabled" person for diversity purposes. He also claimed I pretended to be autistic, dyslexic and dyspraxic so that I could qualify for extra time on my exams. 
 
There is one particular example that stands out in my mind. There reached a point when I was no longer on speaking terms with X and Y. Out of the blue, I got a call from Y. He accused me of not being a good friend to X and berated me for abandoning him at a time when he was going through a terrible time. Y told me that X’s uncle had been in a horrific car accident, was in a coma and on life-support and that he was not expected to survive. As soon as he said those words, I felt like the worst person on earth. Since I had just arrived at Charing Cross station, I bought a box of chocolates and boarded the next train back to Sevenoaks. As I willed the train to leave the platform (so that I could go to X’s house to personally apologize for being a bad friend), I called him. I apologized and begged X to forgive me. When I finished my heartfelt apology, X began to laugh. He told me that they made up the story to trick me into apologizing to him. He called me an idiot and said that he couldn’t believe that Sevenoaks had given someone so stupid an academic scholarship.
 
It is in this backdrop, that they set the course of events into motion that would leave my life in tatters.  
 
On 13 October 2016, a day that will stay etched in my mind forever, the boys sought out senior members of Sevenoaks staff and told them that I was suicidal and had mental health issues. They told Sevenoaks staff a series of lies, including that:
 
  • I had attempted to kill myself the previous Monday.
 
  • My parents were getting divorced.
 
  • My parents were abandoning me over half term and so I would be unsupervised and alone.
 
  • I had an imaginary friend.
 
The moment I entered tutor group and Y smugly told me what he had done, I knew my life had changed forever. The walk to the Head of Academic’s office felt like I was walking to an execution chamber. It did not help that Y followed me there, all the while telling me what they had told the staff.
 
I will not go into the details of what happened at that meeting because it is a source of great distress and I am currently seeing a trauma specialist so that I can come to terms with it.  What I will say is that I was in shock and disbelief before I even set foot into the room. I was in no position to advocate for myself (something that as an autistic student I struggle to do under the best of circumstances). Not wanting to appear confrontational or combative, I agreed with the accusations that were hurled at me. What I will also say, is that my interrogation was made all the worse by several senior members of staff coming in and out of the room. I have since learned that it was highly inappropriate for the school to interrogate me in the manner that they did when they knew that I am autistic and suffered from anxiety.
 
After what seemed like a lifetime, it was determined that I was not suicidal. My father was called and I was told I could go on the Spanish-language trip to Spain that was leaving that afternoon.
 
Horrific as my experience had been, I thought the worst was over. I could not have been more naïve.
 
Following the meeting, Y confronted me. He demanded to know why I was still in school. He told me I should be in a mental institution. He claimed that he was unhappy with the outcome and threatened to go back to the school staff to tell them more information. Y momentarily interrupted his tirade to speak to Z, a girl who would a short while later, as I entered our English class, publicly ask me why I had tried to kill myself and demanded to know details about the meeting I had had that morning.
 
As I sat in that English class, the magnitude of the situation threatened to bury me.  It dawned on me that soon many of my classmates would know and that my school life would be irreversibly damaged.
 
That afternoon, I departed on the school trip to Spain. Although heavily burdened, being in a foreign country with classmates that did not yet know, was a reprieve and a small distraction.
 
Two days later, as the Spanish widower I was staying with was baking chocolate croissants that scented the air and I was packing my backpack for the excursion I would shortly be going on, my mum appeared to collect me. On the way to the airport, my mum told me that the boys had gone back to the school staff and told them that I had “acted” and “fooled” them, that I intended to kill myself in Spain and that my death would be their fault. They had also insisted that I should not be contacted until I was collected from Spain because I would kill myself. My mum knew that these accusations were a lie. However, the Head of Pastoral Care told her that I had said these things by text and promised to provide my mum with copies of the texts. (It would later turn out that there were no texts - see below documents).
 
Over the half term, I became so distressed over what the boys had done and over the Head of Pastoral Care's claims that she had seen text messages that did not exist, that I was unable to sleep and began having panic attacks. I was so distraught that I was diagnosed with PTSD-symptoms and referred to a trauma specialist. The prospect of returning to school was so overwhelming that I missed a week of school.
 
I eventually willed myself to return. Since my commute to school took 90 minutes each way, my mum provided moral support by accompanying me to Sevenoaks and waiting for me at a local a coffee shop.  I am grateful she did so, because that first day back was undoubtedly one of the worst days of my life.
 
A girl in my class told me that the boys were gossiping about me. They were telling my classmates that I should be in a mental institution and that they needed to be weary of me and could not trust me. They also bragged about their plan to report my father to the police for child neglect and claimed that my mother was clinically depressed and should also be institutionalized.  Upon hearing this, my mum immediately returned to the school and demanded to speak to a senior member of staff. At the meeting, the staff focused on admonishing the girl for telling me. My mum, a corporate lawyer, tried to get them to focus on the boys and asked the staff to stop the boys from continuing to lie and gossip about me. Instead of listening to her, my mum was asked to calm down and was accused of upsetting me. At that moment, I knew it was the beginning of the end.
That incident and the school’s response to it (they claimed the girl denied having said those things to me) caused me to miss a further two weeks of school. On the days that I managed to force myself to return, I spent anytime I was not in lessons hiding in the medical centre or SENCO office.  I was unable to go to my tutor group, my history and Spanish lessons and any other place where there was a risk of seeing the boys. I memorized their schedules and planned my day so as to avoid crossing paths with them. I missed so many math lessons (my favourite subject) that I was eventually allowed to enter the classroom through the back door (something the boys would later gossip about to my classmates).
 
At school I hung my head in shame, branded by an invisible scarlet letter. I am the girl who tried to kill herself. I am the girl who is a psychopath. I am the girl who tortures her beloved dog. I am the girl who is a pathological liar. Where once each person in my class held the promise of friendship, I became a castaway. Adrift in an ocean of faces. Ostracized and alone.
 
As the boys continued to amuse themselves at my expense and the Head of Pastoral Care dismissed each incident as being “my perception” (reinforcing the boys claims that I am crazy), the bullying began to take a physical toll. I was referred to a cardiologist for heart palpitations and was given prescription medication for excruciating stress-related acid reflux. I struggled to sleep or eat and began to suffer from countless daily panic attacks.
 
My parents and younger sister’s lives were also turned upside down. My father who works in the City began accompanying me to Sevenoaks each morning. My mum began to drive to Sevenoaks to collect me each day – a drive that could sometimes take up to 6 hours. My parents attended countless meetings, only to be told that I was making up the allegations. Text messages from classmates that supported my claims were dismissed and ignored. We were told to stop focusing on the past and move forward. My commitment to my education was questioned.
 
I felt trapped!
 
Should I leave the school and jeopardize my future?  Should I let the bullies drive me out of school? Should I try to endure the unendurable at the expense of my emotional and physical wellbeing?
 
Or
 
Should I start afresh, with all the hope and promise that it brings? Should I begin to pick up the broken pieces and start to build myself up again? Should I save myself?
 
And so I have decided to forego an academic scholarship I worked so hard to earn and leave a school I was so proud to be a part of.
 
It is not without great sadness because I will miss my amazing teachers.
 
  • Mr Hall, you are the most amazing history teacher! You will be forever legendary in my eyes.
 
  • Dr Patterson, thank you for making me love math even more than I already did, thank you for all the challenging math problems and for offering to start the lunch Olympiad Math Club with me. I am sorry that I will not see it through.
 
  • Dr Strabić, thank you for letting me use the back door and for making my day by telling me how much you loved my math solutions to the daily Christmas math challenges.
 
  • Dr Spindler, thank you for being an incredible history teacher. Although I only recently transferred to your class, you challenged and stretched me.
 
  • Mr Taylor, thank for being so passionate about classical civilizations. Your enthusiasm is infectious. I will remember you fondly every time I read The Odyssey.
 
  • Mr Barrett, thank you for turning me into an artist. Your passion, enthusiasm and encouragement meant the world to me.
 
I am sharing my disability-related bullying experience because I hope it will raise awareness of the impact bullying has on a person’s life. I hope that some day soon schools will stand up against bullying so that the victim is not left without any option but to leave the school.
Post Script
After I left Sevenoaks School, I submitted a subject access request to the School in order to obtain all documents relating to, and about me. I was particularly concerned about the damage to my reputation, especially since Sevenoaks staff had been led to believe that I had seen collected from Spain because I had sent suicidal text messages. 
 
Although Sevenoaks School eventually admitted that I had not sent suicidal text messages, I discovered that the School continued to include the false information on my file. There was a form which stated that I had been collected from the school trip to Spain because I had sent "alarming texts" to other students suggesting that I was a danger to myself and in which I stated that I had "lied" to Sevenoaks School staff at the 13 October 2016 meeting. (See below). The truth is that I did not send these texts. The School had relied on the false accusations made by the two boys that were bullying me, accusations that were not supported by evidence. It was simply their word against mine.
 
In order to force the school to correct this information, information which I believe to be highly defamatory, I filed a complaint with the Information Commissioner's Office (ICO).

Following an investigation by the Information Commissioner's Office, Sevenoaks School acknowledged that I had not sent suicidal text messages and agreed to add a correction to my school file. (See email below).

As a consequence of having been falsely accused of sending suicidal text messages (text messages the School claimed to have seen even though they did not exist), I became afraid of the Deputy Head Pastoral because she acted with impunity and without regard for the truth. I also felt that she enjoyed the discomfort and anxiety she caused me. This was confirmed when I discovered she had sent the following email (in which she makes light of terrifying me and even goes as far as to include a happy face emoji):
I hope that by sharing my story, I will help a student who is currently being bullied at Sevenoaks School or any other students who are being bullied. My experience has strengthened my commitment to tackle bullying in schools so that no one has to endure what I did. I firmly believe that all students should have the right to feel safe and happy and should be supported by their school.
To all the old and current Sennockians who have contacted me to offer support and kind words, THANK YOU so much. You will never know how much it means to me. Although I was only at the school for a short time and did not have the best experience, I am proud to be part of the Sennockian community that has reached out to me.