Care and Feeding

All the Boys at My Daughter’s High School Banded Together to Do Something Truly Terrible

The only evidence is a blurry photo.

Girl clutching a comforter to her chest.
Photo illustration by Slate. Photo by Tetra Images via Getty Images.

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Dear Care and Feeding, 

My 15-year-old daughter “Sydney” is smart, funny, and outgoing, but struggles with anxiety and hypersensitivity. In fourth grade, after hitting puberty early and gaining a lot of weight, she was bullied so badly that we moved her to a small K-12 private school. She’s done well there for almost six years. Recently though, a frightening change came over her—crying, depression, reluctance to go to school. She’s refused sweets and seconds at supper. She’s asked me to buy her dresses, makeup, and a purse, all of which she previously scorned. She’s talked about growing her hair out, when she’s never been able to stand the feel of hair on her neck, and getting contact lenses. I finally found out what was going on.

Sydney’s school has only 21 students (12 boys and nine girls) in the whole high school section. At the start of this year, all the boys ranked all the girls in order of attractiveness. The only evidence is a blurry photo of a sheet of paper someone took with their phone and sent to Sydney. Only initials are used, but it’s mostly clear who is who. And it’s heartbreaking. The same two girls are ranked either first/second or second/first by all 12 boys, with one exception. The only place they all agree is, they all rank Sydney last.

I’m outraged and want to go to the school administrators and get these boys disciplined. But Sydney insists she’ll die if I do. And my spouse, who to my shock and disappointment just seems ashamed of the whole thing, is with her. Sydney says she wants more than anything to transfer to our huge (1,800 kids) public high school. Should I even consider crawling away without a fight? Is there any possibility Sydney would swim rather than sink in public school? What would you do here?

—Livid At Lookism

Dear Livid,

OK, well now I am also outraged! The fact that this musty old, misogynistic routine is being trotted out to reduce girls to their bodies in a place where they’re supposed to be developing their minds really chaps my hide. I absolutely think these boys need to experience consequences for their actions, not just for Sydney, but for every girl on that list who deserves to be able to go to school without being treated like her worth is predicated on whether she gives some teenage mouth-breather a boner. And because leaving the boys’ bad behavior unchecked only clears the way for even more insidious manifestations of it when they’re older.

Anytime you see a major personality shift in a kid, it’s a loud warning bell, and you should pay attention. The problems at school may go beyond this list. I’d get her into therapy, if she’s not already, especially given her previous struggles with anxiety. Bullying causes real trauma and the effects can be lifelong. My self-esteem issues as a result of being severely bullied as a kid have colored so many aspects of my life and still do today.

Talk to your daughter about what’s going on, and hear out her reasons for wanting to change schools and what she hopes to get out of that decision. Explain to her why the private school administration needs to know what is happening, and why these kids need to be held accountable. I’m willing to bet this list is an open secret that all the kids know about, so you can ask the administration not to give any indication of who the information came from when they speak to students.

Also, look into the public school’s policies on bullying and harassment so you can evaluate that against the private school administration’s response. If possible, talk to administrators or students (perhaps you have a neighbor or friend with a child enrolled at the school) there to get a picture of the school climate. Find out how they handle situations like this one. A transfer won’t help much if the same kind of behavior is tolerated at her next school. That said, your daughter’s safety, which includes her mental health, is the top priority, and sometimes we just need to listen to what our kids are telling us. If your gut tells you she’s not safe at her current school, get her out of there.

—Emily

More Advice From Slate

My husband and I have a 2-year-old boy, Harry, who has his terrible-two moments, but is generally good-natured. He is also very active (maybe a bit hyper), very clever, and very determined. We are both involved parents, my husband even more so now that he is working from home. I’m pretty even-tempered with him, but my partner is not, and I’m not sure how to deal with it. He yells at him a lot.