4OYS investigation: dealing with bullying

Posted at: 11/12/2012 10:51 PM
By: Chris Ramirez, KOB Eyewitness News

In the first of a 2-part KOB 4 On Your Side series, a Rio Rancho High School student reveals the torment he endured by the people who were supposed to be his allies.

The topic of bullying is one that affects anyone who has once walked the halls of a middle or high school. It’s difficult to graduate in this day and age without experiencing bullying to some degree, whether you witness it or become a victim of it.

When we think of a bully, it might be easy to think of someone who is frail or weak, or maybe not so athletic. Wallflowers seemed to get picked on a lot as well, which is why Rio Rancho student Wake Gardner’s story is one I was motivated to tell. Gardner is none of the above. He was a varsity basketball player: Tall, handsome, and mature beyond his years. Quite frankly, he would be the last person I would expect to get picked on. I spent a few months in preparation for this story talking to bully victims and chatting with parents about the problems their children were having in schools all around New Mexico. Sadly, I found that it was easier than I imagined to find bully victims.

I chose to focus this story on Gardner because I wanted to show that anyone could be a bully victim. If Gardner could get bullied, any student out there could as well.

Gardner's story is heartbreaking, because the torment he endured eventually discouraged him from playing on the Rio Rancho High School basketball team. A few members of Gardner's team had played rough with him on the court. Gardner told me that on at least two occasions, his teammates actually assaulted him. Off the court, the teammates would throw food at him and mock him. Things progressively got worse, but by April of the school year, something happened that took the bullying to a different level.

“It was one of the worst things that happened since I’ve been here,” Bruce Carver, Rio Rancho District Athletic Director, said.

We also spoke with Rio Rancho High School Principal Richard VonAncken. He told 4OYS, “The situation that happened back in April was despicable. It was a horrific incident.”

The worst of the bullying happened inside the men’s locker room.

“They peed all over my books, my shoes, my jerseys, my gear, everything,” Gardner told me.

The basketball players also urinated inside Gardner's hair gel.

“It was a liquid type gel so there was no way I could tell,” Gardner told me with a heavy breath. “I wore that hair gel around for days.”

Finally, a friend told Gardner about the prank. He called his mom for permission to leave school to wash his hair out.

Principal VonAncken and Athletic Director Carver told me that they took the appropriate steps. The boys responsible were disciplined on three levels, according to the administrators. There were school level, athletic level, and criminal consequences. The Rio Rancho Police Department charged the boys with aggravated battery, disorderly conduct, and criminal damage to property. But the internal damage was already done.

“Everyone knew,” Gardner told me. “It was spread throughout the school that I was wandering around with urinated hair gel and everyone laughed at me and I didn’t know why.”

Here’s the part that makes Gardner's story unlike all the others. Gardner, at the age of 17, has chosen to file a lawsuit against his tormentors. The suit does not include the Rio Rancho School District or any of its employees. It only names the tormentors and their parents as defendants.

With no experience in a courtroom, Gardner wrote his own lawsuit and filed it in a Sandoval County court. I asked Gardner if the process was intimating.

“Yeah it is, and it’s a little scary,” Gardner said. “I asked myself a few weeks ago if this is the right thing to do and I know it is. If bullying happens to me it can happen to anyone.”

Gardner is now in his senior year and basketball season is just around the corner. He chose not to play this final year of high school because at least one of his tormentors might play on the team. Gardner found other extra-curricular activities in place of basketball, but he can’t help but wonder where his basketball dreams may have taken him had he not been the object of such a cruel prank.

While I was promoting this story on the radio Monday, the host said she worried that so many adults may chalk this story up to “kids being kids.” I hope that’s not the case. Parents need to parent. Parents have the awesome responsibility to teach their children how to grow up respecting others. As a bullying victim myself, I hope our community grows to find the similarities we have with in one another and stop focusing on the differences.