Bullying becomes a lesson in double standards
May 2012 Cleveland Plain Dealer
By Barry Shlachter
The bullying incident at Mitt Romney's alma mater, Cranbrook, recalled a painful memory of an all-too-similar event just a year later on the leafy Shaker Heights, Ohio, campus of University School, which often played its Michigan counterpart in football.
Steve Andrews was not gay. Later he would date the prettiest girl at my old public school.
But in the spring of 1966, this natural athlete who was too laid back to sweat for the "Preppers" had the audacity of having almost shoulder-length hair. Radically ahead of fashion by a couple of years, Steve was a quietly witty, nonconfrontational "flower child" long before the term had reached greater Cleveland. Many teachers still had crew cuts; nearly all the students uncannily shared the über-clean-cut look captured in Romney's yearbook portrait.
Close to commencement day, upperclassmen grabbed Steve, held him down and cut off his hair.
The incident went largely unremarked upon. No teacher mentioned it, but the faculty might not have been told.
The headmaster, a larger-than-life character, did not issue a thundering morning chapel admonishment of which he was quite capable. I remember one school assembly that winter in which a teacher demonstrated vein-popping anger over the snowballing of passing cars and demanded that the miscreants step forward.
But not a word about the attack on Steve.
All of the assailants graduated, as did the son of a prominent businessman who purportedly had stolen the questions to the final history exam.
It was my first year at US. Steve and I were juniors. Many had been classmates since kindergarten and didn't always welcome newcomers. Moreover, I was on scholarship, played no varsity sports and commuted by bicycle. Very uncool.
Steven Andrews was my first friend in a very unfamiliar environment. And the organized attack stung.
After the assault, Steve did not return to University School for his senior year. I don't know how much, or how little, the incident affected him, or whether the lack of punishment of the graduating seniors added to what he might have felt. We never discussed it. But I sensed that a spark inside him died.
He attended Shaker High, then briefly went to college out west before dropping out. The country was at war in Vietnam. Back home in Ohio, he received his draft notice and the day or so before he was to report to the Army, Steve took a pistol from his home and put an end to his young life.
Some weeks later I knocked on his family's door when, home from college, I had learned of his death. His mother opened it and we just stared at each other. We could not talk. I wanted to tell her what a great kid Steve was and that he did not deserve what happened to him. But I could not form the words.
There is no way of knowing whether the bullying contributed to Steve's downward spiral and suicide. While I cannot prove a connection, my heart links them. I know the names of some of those involved. And I wonder whether the Cranbrook incident resonates with any of them.
A quick look at my school's alumni magazine or Facebook page and it's clear that the elite private school, founded in 1890, is far more diverse today. I hope that its students are individually more tolerant of differences.
Both good and bad lessons were absorbed during my two years at US.
What was imparted by the handling of Steve's assault was the realization that double standards exist. Never again would I accept authority without question, having witnessed a respected institution that, instead of setting an example by doing the right thing, turned a blind eye and let bullies get on with their lives, their traditional navy blue blazers and white chinos unruffled on commencement day.
Mr. Shlachter presents a very poignant and very tragic story on Steven Andrews. I was deeply saddened to read it and to speculate on the possible connection to his experience at University School many decades ago. The fact that he was a victim of bullying without any repercussions to the perpetrators is totally unacceptable and contrary to the expectations we uphold in our students today at our school. Our code of conduct is clear: At US we expect students to conduct themselves with honor, integrity and respect. Bullying is not tolerated and can be grounds for expulsion from the school. In the University School community today, we are proud that we enable many different kinds of boys to thrive. We have actors, athletes, artists, poets, straight students, gay students, black students, white students, exchange students from Africa and China, and generally speaking, great diversity of thought and attitude. Times have changed since the 60's, and the University School of today is a place that has no tolerance for bullying. We appreciate Mr. Shlachter’s article for shedding light on this terrible, pervasive problem in schools and universities today.Luckily, the school is a different place today. Come by if you are ever in town.
Stephen S. Murray | Headmaster
Hunting Valley and Shaker Heights, OH