Thirteen-year-old Mary Dixon has seen the made-for-TV ‘tweener movie “High School Musical” two dozen times. She’s a longtime Girl Scout, plays second-chair clarinet in the school orchestra and watches the Disney TV show “Hannah Montana” with faithful glee. In other words, she’s pretty typical as eighth-graders go.
She’s also dealing with another all-too-common aspect of early tean-hood: girl-on-girl bullying.
Mary has been assaulted twice in the past month, once by older girls in a neighborhood park and again just last Thursday, she says, by classmates on the campus of Freedon Middle School. These aren’t lunch-money muggings, either.
A group of kids, mostly girls, has apparently decided it’s fun to call Mary a lesbian. Several times a week since Mary was chased and attacked Sept. 20 at Almondale Park- Bakersfield police charged one girl with assault following that incident- fellow students, alone or in small groups, have walked up to her and made some reference to her alleged sexuality.
On Thursday, five girls introduced the subject once again, but this time they allegedly punctuated the verbal assault by kicking and punching her. (The Dixons say at least one student was suspended in connection with the assault. Campus and Rosedale Union School District officials, citing confidentiality issues, said they could not comment.)
Mary is not a lesbian, but that’s entirely beside the point.
She is the victim of a disturbing trend in schools across the nation: the emergence of the Mean Girl. This isn’t the catty, back-stabbing version from the Lindsay Lohan movie of the same name, although cattines comes into play. This is a more virulent, violent version, with its own clinical name: “relational aggression,” or R.A.
Researchers say R.A. can begin as early as preschool but generally peaks in middle school. Mean girls spread rumors, lies and secrets, building a fear-based social hierarchy by threatening to take away friendships or embarrass with gossip. At its worst, it can involve outright assault.
Girls have always had cliques; they have always gossiped and ostracized. But psychologists- like those associated with Pennsylvania’s Ophelia Project- say R.A. has spread so quickly over the past decade, it almost approaches domestic violence in scale.
Experts say too many teachers dismiss girl-vs.-girl cruelty as either brutality, or they simply fail to pay attention. Four basic archetypes are involved, according to Rosalind Wiseman, founder of the Washington-based Empower Program: the Queen Bee, who can control underlings merely with a piercing star; the Banker, who processes news and gossip from other girls and then strategically distributes it to foment strife; the wannabes, who serve as messengers and backup intimidators; and the targets.
Playing the latter role, in the present case, would be Mary, a quiet, mild-mannered girl who wants nothing more than to be left alone to enjoy her final year of childhood before she enters high school.
Mary- who, with the blessing of her mother, Valorie Dixon, gave permission for her name to be used- doesn’t have a clue why she has been subjected to all of this.
“Mary is just a nice girl, and she has nice friends,” Mrs. Dixon said. “Maybe that’s why. We don’t know.”
Administrators at Mary’s school are aware of what’s happening, according to the Dixons. “As nice as they are, I wonder if they’re doing enough,” Mary’s mother said.
Jeff Nickell, vice-president of the Kern County Human Relations Commission, wonders the same thing. “If some of this happened at school, it’s our job to make sure the school is aware of the situation and they’re acting,” he said. “We’d like to know more.”
The Dixons moved into their northwest Bakersfield neighborhood four years ago with the expectation of sending Mary to brand-new Frontier High School. That, unfortunately, is where some of Mary’s tormentors are already enrolled as freshmen. The housing market being what it is- down, and falling- moving is not an option.
So the Dixons are preparing for the next confrontation as best they can.
“We’re doing some role-playing at home,” Valorie Dixon said. “‘If I say this, what do you say back?’ The idea is to help her come up with answers that aren’t inappropriate, that don’t resort to bad language, that don’t get her into trouble.”
There’s always self-defense training through the Girl Scouts- a strategy that conjures up unpleasant scenarios that, sadly, are all too realistic.
For the Dixons, it’s been a lesson in psychology, self-esteem and survival- not the type of subjects that come up often on “Hannah Montana.”
as seen in “The Bakersfield Californian” 10/21/2007