Middle-schooler, family want to raise awareness about ...
By EMMALEE C. TORISK
Caitlin Mitchell remembers May 1, 2012, like it was yesterday: the argument at lunch, the walk home from Struthers Middle School that was intercepted by screams and punches, the need to borrow a cellphone from a bystander to call for a ride when it hurt too badly to walk.
It very well could have been yesterday, for how much the bullying incident still affects the 13-year-old.
“I have a constant reminder every day,” said Caitlin, who underwent a complete reconstruction of her ACL in June 2012 and continues to wear a knee brace. “I can’t live a normal life.”
She’s referring not only to her physical injuries, but to emotional ones as well.
She said the girl who purportedly did this to her — a fellow eighth-grader at Struthers and a former close friend — continues to bully Caitlin at school, hovering around her locker and shouting threats to her whenever she’s within earshot.
The bullying even has escalated to the point that required Caitlin’s being pulled out of certain classes and school — though she’s since returned, feeling unfairly punished for something she didn’t do — along with the filing of restraining and protection orders against the
purported bully and her family. These orders have been violated many times, Caitlin said.
Her mother, Melissa Mitchell, added that Caitlin, who was diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder, also has expressed thoughts of suicide and has been attending counseling sessions, which seem “to be helping her a little bit.”
“It’s very emotional, very traumatic for all of us, because we have to see what Caitlin goes through,” Melissa said. “As a mother, you don’t ever want to see your kid like that.”
Driven by a desire to protect Caitlin and other victims of bullying as well as to “get some attention drawn to” the problem itself, the Mitchells started a “Justice for Caitlin” Facebook page and corresponding petition in early April. They weren’t entirely sure what the response would be.
Barely a month later, the Facebook page boasts about 750 “likes,” and the petition nearly 192 virtual signatures. Most responses, too, have been “overwhelmingly positive,” with many commentors sharing their own struggles with bullying in Struthers and elsewhere, Melissa said.
“We needed support to get something done about this,” added 18-year-old Courtney Mitchell, Melissa’s eldest daughter and Caitlin’s sister. “Some don’t even know Caitlin, but they want to help her in any way they can. [Bullying] is a big deal. It needs to be taken more seriously.”
Melissa explained that she’d just like to see stricter rules on bullying created and enforced, and hopes that by sharing her daughter’s story — which largely had been ignored for the past two years — that change will come.
“I want them to change the rules,” Melissa said, “and protect the kids who are being bullied more than they are protecting the bullies.”
Joseph Nohra, superintendent of Struthers City Schools, declined to discuss matters related to Caitlin, though he referred to the district as having a “very tough” stance on bullying, along with a proactive approach to “protecting our kids and keeping them safe.” He explained that the disciplinary process for bullying does not differ from any other, however. Each student has the right for the situation to be investigated and to tell his side of the story, Nohra said, adding that it’s not as if a building administrator can “just accuse somebody and assume they’re guilty.”
“The misconception is that you can immediately throw out students in a public school district,” Nohra said. “We can’t. ... We’re responsible for policing things in the school district.”
But the district does “move pretty quickly” — from warnings, to detention, to suspension, to expulsion — once a bullying problem is identified within a school, Nohra noted. He said, too, that the district is constantly amending its already-strong bullying policies and would like to also eventually educate “children on how to treat each other the right way” — perhaps addressing the problem before it even starts.
And Caitlin, whose life was forever changed by bullying, wants to use what happened to her to make a difference in the lives of others. She wants to “talk to kids about it,” at first through local anti-bullying seminars.
“I want to be a voice for other kids that are being bullied,” Caitlin said. “They’re not alone. I know what they’re going through. I want to help them.”