Reader Warning: This article contains disturbing content and some rough language.
After writing a three-part series about a case of felonious sexual bullying of a freshman at Bainbridge High School by three upperclassmen and the recent court ruling against the school district, I got quite a few emails, but one in particular stood out. Former Bainbridge Islander Sara Young-Buck wrote to thank me for my coverage of the story, and she mentioned, almost parenthetically, that she too had been badly bullied as a student in the Bainbridge public school system. She had begun writing blog posts about her experiences in the schools here, and she included a link to them in her email, which I clicked.
I proceeded to read her posts, which are more like chapters of a book she may not yet know that she is writing but indeed is, with incisive wit, tragic humor, self-deprecating bravado, and painfully profound vulnerability. Now 37, the “Queen of Non-Disclosure” begins by explaining her reasons for writing her history: ”What I myself only very recently became aware of is the deep sense of shame and self-loathing that still accompanies those memories for me. The belief that these things were my fault, that I was tormented because I really was a defective human being, and that anyone who gets to know me well enough will find this out, has pervaded my every relationship for the last 30 years.”
Sara also told me that she was motivated by the fact that she thinks the voices of victims/survivors are loudly absent from the increasing public discourse about bullying. Indeed you hear from parents, educators, pundits, but not so much from those who have directly experienced bullying.
“A Crowd-Sourced Exorcism”
Harrowing is an understatement to describe Sara’s account, which she calls a “crowd-sourced exorcism,” of the relentless abuse she endured starting as a first grader at Blakely Elementary School. And torture is a more fitting word than abuse—torture by many of her peers and some of the adults whose job it was to nurture, teach, and protect her. I refer to Sara and her parents by their first names in this article, because this story is so deeply personal.
But are events that unfolded in the 1980s and 199os relevant now? You be the judge.
When you think bullied who do you imagine? The weak, grotesque, and unloved? Sara Young-Buck is none of those things. Often, being different is all you need to be to bullied. And indeed Sara was/is different, particularly from the culture she was confronted with when she entered the Bainbridge Island School District (BISD) after coming from a racially diverse “lower class” inner city neighborhood of Los Angeles.
Welcome to Bainbridge Island
It was 1983, and as Sara put it her parents were hippies still stuck in 1971. Her father, Mike Young, who had gone to Stanford Law School on full scholarship, was the first in his working class family to go to college. When he lost his job as an attorney, Sara’s mother, Barbara Chandler-Young, found work in Seattle, and the family moved to Bainbridge Island after hearing about its virtues and falling for its natural beauty.
But for Sara, when she entered school, the promised land proved to be nothing short of a living hell. Things looked okay for a while. Sara said she made friends and caught up academically pretty fast. But one day a playground game at recess turned south on a dime, and suddenly Sara, the self-described “big mouth,” had unintentionally drawn the wrath of a classmate:
“The girls backed off from me . . . and one boy in particular, let’s call him MC, became enraged. Nuts. Totally batshit insane crazy. He came at me swinging. The other boys cheered him on as he punched me, knocked me over. I tried to hit back, tried to get him off me, but it didn’t work. While I was on the ground he grabbed me by the hair and started dragging me across the North soccer field. The soccer game broke up to watch. And along behind us came the entire first grade class. Some were merely watching, some were cheering, some were kicking me, throwing rocks and spitting. Girls and boys finally united against a common enemy, and that enemy was me. . . . My fate was sealed from that moment forward.”
According to Sara, the playground monitor offered little sympathy and the teacher in charge assumed it was her fault the boy had “snapped” and said so in front of the class. Sara’s friends drifted away, and she endured the rest of the year as a social pariah.
Serial Abuse at School
Things only got worse in second grade. Not wanting her to miss the first day of school, Sara’s parents sent her knowing she had head lice. Having been trained in school about the highly communicable nature of lice and looking for a reason to be able to go home, Sara told the class about it. Thereafter she was dubbed “Sara Germs,” drawing contempt from a few fifth-grade girls who initiated, with help from a group of followers, daily ambushes that included beatings and verbal assaults, all with the teacher looking the other way.
According to Sara, her teacher, whom she calls Ms. H in her blog, recoiled in horror when she announced her case of lice and never forgave Sara for it. In addition to allowing her to be tormented by her schoolmates, both in class and on the “playground,” Ms. H belittled and targeted her for punishment throughout the year. Here is Sara’s description of the reaction in her class when another teacher came to announce that she had won a writing contest:
“Let’s all say congratulations to Sara Young; she was the winner for this class.” And Mrs. M beamed at me and started clapping. There was a beat of stunned silence, then everyone else started clapping too. It took me a minute to realize what I had just heard; I kept expecting her to announce that I had been expelled and sentenced to break rocks for twenty years for being an in intractable freak. But no, she was smiling at me, warmly and genuinely, and Ms. H looked like she’d like to choke up a hairball made of black coffee and hate. . . . It was quite something to realize that, as a seven-year-old, an adult was capable of disliking me that much. I didn’t understand it then, and I don’t understand it now either, since the balance of power is so firmly on the side of the adult.”
Sara was smart (in fact, later determined through testing to be highly gifted) and tough, but she was no match for sadistic fifth graders, pack hate, and, according to her account, a criminally negligent teacher. At seven, she began eating lead from pencils, hoping to die. She tried to commit suicide by eating pills from the bathroom cabinet.
Sara describes her third grade teacher as a wonderful man who loved teaching and had zero tolerance for teasing or bullying. But the abuse at Blakely continued, just more covertly, and the daily insults marched on: “Sara Germs” was fat, ugly, stupid, disgusting, poor, weird. Her secondhand clothes and old family Volvo were embarrassments.
Sara’s Parents Step in
When Sara came home from school one day with her coat shredded by what appeared to be a box cutter, her parents went to talk to the Blakely School principal Brent Peterson. Notably, Peterson was principal of Bainbridge High School later during the egregious sexual harassment previously mentioned in this story, for which BISD was sued for negligence (read about Webster v. BISD).
Sara had worn the coat onto the school bus, taken it off during the ride, and found it shredded when she grabbed it to get off the bus. Sara’s parents were horrified when they saw the coat. But when they confronted Peterson he told them no cutting object had been found on the bus and nothing could be done because there was no “proof.” Although Sara had told her parents she was pretty sure she knew who had cut up her coat, Peterson took no further action to look into the matter. Barbara told me, “We were frustrated, but what the hell do you do? It was implied that kids will be kids.”
An intelligent, open, and outspoken woman, Barbara continued, “I was bullied as a kid, and Mike’s father was an abusive alcoholic. I was drowning in my job. I had no idea [what was really going on with Sara]. I think I was comparing it to my childhood.” When I asked her why she thinks she herself was bullied, Barbara said, “I had strabismus [an eye condition that impedes the brain's ability to coordinate the eye muscles]. I had surgery for it, but I was left walleyed—one eye wanders. I was teased about that, and I am lacking in social skills. I might be slightly ‘Asbergery,’” she said good-naturedly.
Mike, who was the stay-at-home parent, responded by getting more directly involved in his daughter’s life. He offered to volunteer at Blakeley but at first was told there was no room in Sara’s class so was sent to a different one. He also became the first male Brownie leader in the state and tried to get Sara involved in softball by coaching.
Mike died suddenly a few years later, when Sara was 11. Barbara said, “I don’t know if he had a premonition that he didn’t have that much time left and wanted to spend time with his daughter. . . .”
After Sara’s Father Died
Sara remembers what a kid at school said when her father died: “He probably wanted to get away from you.” She was in sixth grade and by then an underachiever who tested off the charts and blew off her homework because, unsurprisingly, she despised school.
When Mike died, he and Barbara had just purchased a tavern in Suquamish. Barbara told me it was a dream of his to own a tavern, and the plan was that he would run it and she would be home more for Sara. Abruptly, just before opening, the job of running the bar fell in Barbara’s lap.
She said, “After Mike died I was in total absolute survival mode. . . . I’ve reproached myself [for what happened to Sara] over the years. I was just stumbling from day to day. I was getting calls from the school about Sara not showing up. They would call collect. I remember every time they called, which could be ten times a month, it cost $3.50. I’d get my finger wagged at me, and what could I do when I had to be at work until 2 a.m.?”
Sara Was Not the Only One
Sara’s treatment was not an anomaly. “I wasn’t the only one,” Sara told me. She explained that there were a quite a few kids who were bullied too and/or ostracized by the administration.
At BHS, one friend of Sara’s had entered the school with straight As but ran into problems her sophomore year after having to leave home over the summer because of an abusive stepfather. “Vice Principals Dean Fritts and Rick Jones told her she wasn’t a good fit. . . . Later Jones told her she was the ‘scum of the school’ and she was expelled,” said Sara. Again, notably, Dean Fritts also was Vice Principal during the sexual abuse case mentioned earlier and was implicated for negligence in the Webster v. BISD trial (read more). Sara said another friend, who had gotten pregnant and had a baby eight months before graduating from BHS was not allowed to participate in her graduation ceremony.
“The administrators and some teachers want a certain kind of people, and if you’re not they leave you twisting in the wind,” Sara told me. She said they want “the Abercrombie & Fitch students,” and actively push out the rest. When I asked her what she meant, she said that the CEO of clothing retailer Abercrombie & Fitch has stated that their brand is for the popular, good looking, well-liked kids.
“Nothing Bad Can Ever Happen Here”
Sara is only roughly half way through writing her story. A lot more happened to her and to her outlier friends growing up on Bainbridge and attempting to navigate the School District. That will be the subject of the next part of this article.
In the meantime, here is a quote from Sara’s most recent blog entry, posted last night, November 26, in time for Thanksgiving:
“There is also a code of silence that comes with growing up on the island. One of the myriad delightful ways in which Bainbridge Island likes to crawl deeply inside it’s own ass is in its insistence that Nothing Bad Can Ever Happen Here. By the time I was in third grade, I had learned that you simply didn’t talk to adults about unpleasant things if you wanted to be believed. One memorable afternoon, a man stood on the corner by our house waving a large kitchen-knife at all passers-by. We didn’t bother calling the police (they wouldn’t have come) or telling a grown up (who wouldn’t have believed us), instead we neighborhood kids just utilized our phone-tree and let everyone know to stay off that corner. It goes deeper than that; on Bainbridge Island people have literally gotten away with rape, murder and everything in between, simply because Nothing Bad Can Ever Happen Here, but I’m not here to tell that story. I’m here to tell my story. Do your own digging if you want.”
- Bainbridge School District Found Guilty of Negligence in Student Sexual Bullying Case
- Webster v. BISD Part 2: Father of Abused BHS Student Talks About His Family’s Ordeal
- Webster v. BISD Part 3: Bainbridge School District’s Handling of Sexual Assault ‘a Perfect Example of What Not to Do’
- Letter to the Editor: Former BHS Student Speaks out About Bullying Case
- BISD ‘Changes’ Affecting Special Needs Kids Spark Confusion, Concern, and Action
- Photos of the Day: Orange You Glad You Unified Against Bullying?
- Statement from School Assistant Superintendent About Woodward Investigation
- Are Evangelicals Recruiting Bainbridge Students?
- Investigation Launched into Ongoing of Three Youth Pastors at Woodward Middle School
- Chemicals in Bainbridge Parks and Schools: Roundup of the Facts
- More Confusion Over School District Herbicide/Pesticide Policy—Legal Action Threatened
- BISD Now Requesting Applications from All Volunteers—Still No Resolution to Investigation
- Déjà Vu: The School District Has Dealt with Controversial Youth Pastor Visits Before
- Letter from the Editors: Woodward School Investigation Is Not a ‘Witch Hunt’
Photos courtesy of Sara Young-Buck.