Last week, an eighth grader at a ReNew Schools charter in New Orleans East suffered second-degree burns from having scalding water thrown on him by another student. He required skin grafts for the wounds to his legs. This wasn’t the first time this student had been attacked on campus. A few months earlier, a different student slammed his head into the concrete. He reported that incident too.
I applaud this student for being brave enough to come forward. It takes guts to speak out against bullying.
Anyone who caught the RTA, or the “Rita” as we called it, to school in New Orleans in the 1990s or 2000s has a wild story or two to tell about extreme bullying.
During the academic calendar, students received two New Orleans Regional Transit Authority “bus tickets” a day intended for travel to and from school on the bus or streetcar. This meant young people, essentially unsupervised, were cycling on and off of city buses on a daily basis mixing with not only other transit passengers, but also with other students from schools across the city.
For the most part, each school had its own dress code. Xavier Prep girls, depending on classification, wore either maroon and gray plaid skirts or gold ones. Live Oak girls had green plaid, 35 boys (historically McDonogh No. 35 Senior High School) dressed in all khaki, and Alcée Fortier High School (now Lusher High School) girls wore baby blue plaid.
Students were categorized as well behaved or rowdy, by their peers and the community alike, based on the reputation of the uniform.
Safety was a very real concern. If you went to a magnet or private school, you were believed to be timid; thus making you a target for harassment by some public school students. This high school caste system was no myth. Everyday students navigated a matrix of hot spots — real and imagined — hoping to only run into those wearing the friendly uniform.
Some bullies attacked other students seemingly for no reason other than what school they attended. People were stabbed with scissors and pencils on the bus. “Sneaking” was an Uptown favorite. To sneak someone means to punch or hit that person and then flee. Students snuck other students all the time at the bus stop and on the bus.
These brouhahas regularly escalated into brutal fights where kids were knocked out, left bloodied or seriously hurt.
“I was from Uptown and caught the bus to my aunt’s house in the Calliope projects from Lusher in elementary and middle, then from St. Aug to there for two years of high school,” shares N. Cameron, a 2002 graduate of St. Augustine High School. “My stories of fights on the bus (and streetcar) are too many to list. Add the fact that I was chubby, wore glasses, played clarinet, and read books on the bus… biggest target ever.”
The violence against Preppers had gotten so vicious one year that school administration made arrangements with the RTA to station one bus outside of school right at dismissal for Xavier Prep students only. This bus headed straight to Canal Street and was instructed not to pick up any other students or riders. Some public school students would throw rocks and whatever else they could get their hands on as the Prep-only bus wheeled by.
The student bus culture represented a microcosm of the city’s aggression in the era when New Orleans was earning its “murder capital” title. The bullying students received their social cues from a brutal society where violence had become the first response to dealing with frustration.
I was terrified along the bus route, and for all of my uneasiness, I never told my parents or a trusted adult about a single incident that happened to me or that I witnessed. Same with most of my peers. We did everything imaginable to dodge throngs of students wearing uniforms we deemed hostile, even getting off several bus stops later or purposely taking longer bus routes.
Today, most students travel to school on yellow school buses in New Orleans so they don’t necessarily have the same worry we did back then. However, extreme bullying hasn’t disappeared, if anything, it seems to have intensified with the proliferation of social media and as evidenced by the recent incident here and in Sayreville, N.J., where school Superintendent Richard Labbe made the controversial call to cancel the Sayreville War Memorial High School’s entire football season due to the arrests of seven players ages 15 to 17 on sexual crime charges. The allegations have been referred to as “hazing,” but what they are are sadistic.
Every student deserves to attend class, travel to school and participate in extracurricular activities without threat or harm. From the locker room to the cafeteria to the hallway — just as nuns and school officials at Prep tried to do for us in the 90s — it is the administration’s responsibility to protect every student under their care.
jewel bush is an award-winning journalist and writer. Her work has appeared in The Washington Post, The Times-Picayune and The (Houma) Courier. She has won numerous awards including distinctions from the Louisiana Press Association and the New York Times Regional Media Group. Her short story, “Red Polish” appears in “Dismantle: An Anthology of Writing from the VONA/Voices Writing Workshop.” Her newest piece, Related Somehow to Africa: Black Palestinians and the Search for Shared Identity, appears in issue 115 of the Harvard journal, Transition.