Parenting a teen or preteen is difficult enough without the added complications of real-life and cyberbullying, often by peers but at times even by adults.
Bullying is common enough among children and young people, but one unfortunate characteristic is that it often takes place far away from parental view. Seldom does a bullied child talk openly about the experience, much less report the bullying to a parent. If a parent is lucky enough, or perceptive enough, he or she may sense the hurt the child is going through and start asking the right questions. But a far more common scenario is for children under siege to clam up and simply avoid bullying situations altogether, for fear that interference by parents or authority figures would only bolster the bully’s accusation that they are “wimps” and “tattle-tales,” likely increasing the escalation of bullying; or else earn the ire of the peer group, who would see it as inviting adult intrusion into their insular youthful world.
As far as Trixie Madamba is concerned, her son Liam—“named after the actor,” she sheepishly concedes—was a “gentle, simple boy,” who loved books, movies and music, and described himself as an “introvert.” But he also had a bright future ahead of him, nearing completion of an international diploma program that, while demanding and challenging, put him on track for college admission here and abroad. He was a scholar at the British School, as were two older siblings, and stood nearly six feet tall, by all accounts a “normal” teenager. Until he jumped from the top floor of a multistory parking building, surviving for a few hours until he succumbed to cardiac arrest.
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Talking to Liam’s friends and classmates, particularly to a girl classmate who was with him when they were called to the office of the high school coordinator for a “consultation,” Trixie and her husband Paeng have been able to piece together a timeline for the events just before Liam jumped to his death.
Fetching Liam and his siblings from school that afternoon of Feb. 5, Trixie says she didn’t notice anything out of the usual about Liam, although typically he was quiet and pensive.
“Unfortunately, my husband and I had some errands to do after I brought the kids home,” recalls Trixie, who is herself a teacher at the Beacon School. What they didn’t know was that, some hours after reaching home, Liam walked out of the house and started wandering the streets of Makati. And while the rest of the family thought he was sound asleep in his room, Liam was in fact walking idly through Makati, spotted by a few vendors, food outlet workers and parking attendants.
What Trixie and Paeng didn’t know, too was that on that same afternoon, he and another student were called to the office of the high school coordinator who confronted them with accusations that they had plagiarized a paragraph (from the same website) and used it without attribution in their drafts of an academic paper. The coordinator allegedly demanded that the two admit their guilt before the entire British School community, tell their parents about what happened, apologize to their classmates and teachers, and submit additional papers to make up for the plagiarized paragraph.
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It was only at midnight that the Madamba couple discovered Liam’s disappearance, and by checking his e-mail, found out about the “conference” with the coordinator. Calling Liam’s friends led them to the girl who was present for part of the consultation (the coordinator also held one-on-one sessions with each). It was the girl’s mother who told them that their daughter had come home “hysterical” and “threatening to take her own life.” Early the next morning, the Madambas got a call from the Makati police informing them that Liam had been rushed to the Makati Medical Center where he proved lucid enough to ask the police to call his parents.
Liam lived for a few more hours until he succumbed to cardiac arrest. While they were still in the emergency room, the Madambas were visited by the “head of school” Simon Mann and one of the first statements out of his mouth was a declaration that “what happened had no bearing on academics.”
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The death of a young man of promise would have been swept under the rug, if the British School authorities had their way, it seems.
In an assembly with the students and teachers, Mann attributed Liam’s suicide to the boy’s being “depressed,” without addressing what may have triggered the depression or pushed him over the edge. “All suicides are due to mental illness,” Mann is also supposed to have told his audience.
When a small delegation of British School mothers encountered Mann and confronted him, he declared that the school was “phenomenally” in support of Natalie Mann (no relation to the head of school), the high school coordinator. But other students and parents have a “phenomenally” different impression of Ms Mann, who they describe as “mean” and a “bully.”
The school has finally convened a special investigative body while Ms Mann has since gone on leave. The Madambas have likewise written to the school bemoaning what they called the “gross negligence and lack of care” on the part of the school’s administration.
For one thing, says Trixie, “they could have told us of the accusation against our son and called us in for a consultation before talking with Liam.” Not only would it have softened the blow, she believes, but it would also have given them time and opportunity to talk with their son, offer him counseling, and most important, allow him room to vent and assure him that he still had a bright future ahead of him.
But for Trixie, Paeng and their family, that future is lost forever, lost along with their beloved Liam.
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