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Editor’s note: To hear Tamara Arrington and her son, Parker, tell the story in their own words, watch the video at the end of this post.
The other student was older and bigger. But Parker, a 35-pound “runt” of a first grader, as his mom described him, didn’t hesitate. When the other student called his friend a racial slur on the bus, Parker piped up: “Don’t call her that.”
Parker felt proud for sticking up for his friend. But daring to do so tripped off a chain of events that would plunge him and his mom, Tamara Arrington, into a year-long nightmare. Some of the other kids put Parker in their sights. When Arrington asked them to stop, one of their parents called police. Eventually, Arrington sought relief in court.
“It was a very dark tunnel for us,” said Arrington, a personal chef and published author. “I had no way to protect my son. I had no way to make sure that my son was getting the education that he needed.”
Hope arrived unexpectedly when Arrington stumbled on to the existence of the Hope Scholarship, an education choice scholarship that Florida lawmakers created in 2018 for students like Parker. Having that option, she said, changed everything.
“Our light came in the form of a Hope Scholarship,” she said.
Arrington and her son moved to the Suncoast six years ago. For more than a year, the school she handpicked, an A-rated elementary near some of America’s sweetest beaches, couldn’t have been more perfect. Parker excelled socially and academically. Arrington joined the PTA.
When Parker got to first grade, he wanted to ride the bus. Arrington said okay, thinking it would boost his independence. But after Parker stood up to the other kid, things went south.
A group of students on the bus started making fun of his name. (Parker’s last name is Hyndman, so they called him variations on “Hiney.”) They made of fun of his teeth. (Some of his baby teeth were discolored after a tumble down some stairs.) They threw paper balls and candy wrappers at him.
Nearly every day, it was something. Arrington said she went to school officials repeatedly, and was assured repeatedly things would get better. But they didn’t get better – and Parker went from loving school to “despising it.”
“I no longer had that smiling little kid that got off the bus and was happy to see me,” Arrington said. “I had a child in tears, in a rage, just so upset that sometimes he … couldn’t even form words to tell me or any of the other mothers at the bus stop what had happened.”
Arrington felt she had no choice but to take matters into her own hands, but the conflict escalated in ways she never would have imagined. One time, she told one of the students, while at the bus stop with other parents, to please stop picking on her son. That night she got a call from police, who said they got a call from the student’s parent. Another time, she did the same thing – only to have police show up at the bus stop. Arrington now had to respond to allegations that she was the bully.
Meanwhile, Parker started getting frequent headaches and stomach aches. At one point, Arrington took him to the emergency room. The doctors couldn’t find anything physically wrong. They asked, “Is Parker under a lot of stress?”
In late 2018, the stress boiled over. At a community event, there was an incident involving Parker and one of his friends and one of the same students on the bus. Afterwards, Arrington went to court and was granted a temporary restraining order. Two weeks later, a judge extended it three months, and urged the other parent to “get professional help” for the other child.
At school, things still weren’t right. Arrington said the school was upset because now it had to make special accommodations to keep the students separated. There was still too much tension.
She started thinking more about a potential solution she learned about a few months prior. She said she was Googling bullying prevention when an article about the Hope Scholarship popped up. Arrington thought it was too good to be true. But in the spring of 2019, she applied.
She and Parker were at the beach at sunset when she saw the email from Step Up For Students saying he had been awarded. Moments later, Parker said, a pod of dolphins started leaping out of the water.
“Definitely a sign,” he said.
“I just felt this wave of relief coming off of me,” Arrington said.
Arrington began checking out other schools. She wanted a place where Parker could find peace. A friend suggested Montessori by the Sea, overlooking the sand dunes and sea oats in St. Pete Beach. Parker sat in on classes for two days – including yoga on the beach – and loved it.
“When I was at the other school, I felt like okay, I’m going into the worst day in my life repeatedly,” said Parker, now a fourth grader. “But here, I’m excited to get out of bed to come to the beach at my own school. And I’m excited to learn about fun stuff. Definitely.”
Christina Warnstedt, the assistant to the head of school, said Arrington told them about the trauma Parker had endured. But there was never any trepidation about enrolling him. “It was more like, ‘This could be the answer for him,’ ” she said.
And it was. Warnstedt described Parker as “an old soul” with “a big heart” who clicked immediately with teachers and classmates. He became a comforter to another student who was experiencing emotional challenges. “He’s just a light,” she said.
Arrington called the school a hidden gem “tucked away in this little bubble of happiness.”
“I have no doubt that every morning when I drop off my son at school,” she said, “he’s going to come home a better human being.”
Arrington said she’s not sure what would have happened had the scholarship not made that possible.
“There’s no better word than to say that it gave Parker hope for his future. And it gave me hope,” she said. “Making sure that as a mother, that I was making the right decisions for my son. And that he would thrive. Thrive in school. Thrive in life. Thrive. That’s what I wanted. So, the Hope Scholarship truly gave us hope.”
Manhattan Institute senior fellow Max Eden recently authored a report on the legislative origins and history of the first education choice program for students who have experienced bullying in public schools.
In the report, Eden wrote:
“Education reformers have long lamented America’s persistent racial and socioeconomic achievement gap and framed school choice as a means to provide low-income students of color trapped in failing schools with a ticket to a better education. Yet when parents who participate in school choice programs in states like Georgia or Indiana have been surveyed, at least half of them cite safety as a primary motivating factor.”
Eden familiarized himself with the subject of bullying in Florida public schools when he co-authored the book Why Meadow Died about the Parkland, Florida, school shooting. Why Meadow Died lays out a methodical case regarding the dozens of times a disturbed and violent public school student has been mishandled by school and police authorities before finally going on a murder spree.
In this new report, Eden more happily profiles a program designed to allow the victims of bullying to escape from their tormentors. He writes:
“The Speaker’s office noticed that they were receiving e-mails from parents who were upset at the school’s inability to protect their kids. Parents were saying, ‘This has been happening for years, and they do nothing. They just, at most, give the kid a detention or an in-school suspension and say, ‘That’s the most we can do.’
“Corcoran and his staff reviewed data from Florida’s School Environmental Safety Incident Reporting (SESIR) system, which showed 47,000 incidents in the latest reported year (2015–16) — a figure they felt certain represented only a small fraction of the total. They estimated that there could be as many as 100,000 victims of bullying and abuse. ‘We started brainstorming,’ Ochs says. ‘What could we do? There were already policies in place to address bullying. Maybe we could increase the penalties based on the number and type of an incident? Then a lightbulb just kind of went on for us: this fits with the school choice paradigm. We need to empower parents. They just want their kids protected, and that’s not always happening, so we need to give them the power to force the school’s hand or just get their kid to a safer environment.’ ”
The report quotes several families whose lives have been transformed by the program. One parent described their child as having previously been through “daily torture” while another described a public school whose discipline was so ineffective that that the family sought and received a restraining order from a judge.
In Year 2 of existence, the Hope Scholarship remains a small program. A lack of public awareness and a seeming unwillingness on the part of school district officials to follow the law seem to be contributing factors.
A spring 2020 survey of participating parents by Florida State University’s Learning Systems Institute found that about 70% of respondents learned of the Hope Scholarship on their own or from a third party, not from the school district that had a legal obligation to inform them of it. Some parents reported resistance from public school officials. According to one parent, “The school seemed very hesitant to give me the form. I had to go to the office and basically demand it and make them sign it.”
Another group of parents indicated that the school had refused to acknowledge that bullying had occurred. One parent indicated “the Hope notification form was a challenge because the principal and dean at [school name redacted] refused to acknowledge that the bullying was taking place. They refused to communicate with me in a timely manner. I had to make threats to go to the school board commissioner to get them to respond to the bullying issues.”
While Florida’s bullied children have access to a variety of education choice programs beyond the Hope Scholarship, the Florida Legislature should make this program more accessible. Expecting district school principals to investigate and acknowledge in writing that bullying may be occurring in their schools is unrealistic and is an obstacle that few families are able to overcome.
A program for bullied children would be substantially more useful if it were not so easily thwarted.