Published Wednesday, January 30, 2013
By W. WINSTON SKINNER
Annise Mabry grew up in Newnan.
She had a strong academic career that included two years of study in Australia. She had been a teacher at Newnan Crossing Elementary, had experience in law enforcement, had earned a doctorate in education and was starting a challenging, exciting new job. Nothing, however, prepared her for the problems her daughter, Ally, would face in middle school.
Mabry and her family – daughter Ally and son Niles – moved from her hometown of Newnan to Conyers in 2009. Ally "did her last three months of her fifth grade year here," Mabry said Tuesday.
Ally Mabry started to middle school as her mother was beginning a new job as graduate dean at DeVry University. She had oversight of all DeVry's graduate programs in Atlanta with 300-plus faculty reporting to her.
Mabry hired a nanny to help her take care of her children. Soon after school began, Ally "started not wanting to go to school," her mother recalled, which was puzzling since the girl had always enjoyed school and excelled academically.
Mabry had a tradition of taking Ally for coffee and conversation at Starbucks each Friday. "We call it Drink and Chat," Mabry said. She recalled a Friday when Ally asked if she could not ride the bus anymore. When Mabry pressed her daughter for a reason, Ally said the bus was noisy and she just didn't like it.
So Mabry and the nanny began taking Ally to and from school. The nanny reported that one Friday, Ally came home from school angry and went inside and ate much more food than usual. When Mabry tried to find out what was bothering her daughter – and why she was so hungry, she hit an emotional wall.
"She began withdrawing from me," Mabry remembered. "She gives you information when she wants you to have it."
It turned out Ally was the target of relentless bullying at school. Some girls were spitting in Ally's food at lunch. A male student told his mother what was happening, and the mother called Mabry.
When Mabry asked her daughter about the lunchroom problem, Ally told her students were spitting in her food and trying to trip her aT lunch. She also revealed that students were trying to trip her in homeroom.
Mabry asked Ally if she had talked with a teacher about the problems. Ally told her mother that she had been told either to just sit down or that the problems she was facing were something she would have to learn to handle herself.
Mabry was floored. She thought back to her time teaching a Newnan Crossing and tried to imagine a teacher not taking action. "My background is in education," she reflected.
Mabry followed protocol and reached out to Ally's teachers, who said they were not aware of what was happening and that they would be watchful.
Three weeks later, Ally came home on a Friday saying her head hurt. Mabry examined her daughter's head and saw "almost a knot in the back of her head." Ally told her mother that a male student hit her in the head with his literature book while the teacher was in the room.
Mabry then contacted the principal, who promised to look into the situation. A couple of days later, the principal told Mabry that since both Ally and the other student were involved in an altercation, Ally would be suspended for a day.
Mabry told the principal, "I'm going to take it, but know I am not okay with it." Mabry pointed out that Ally had been a straight A student with no discipline referrals until middle school.
Mabry sat down with Ally and told her they needed a plan – a plan that would include identifying "safe people" at the school. They decided the counselors and the school resource officer could be advocates.
Subsequently, Ally went to the counselor's office eight times in a two-month period. Often the visits were long. Mabry found it "disturbing" that she was not notified of the visits or their frequency.
"Nobody's connecting the dots," she said.
One day Ally was in a class where the teacher left to go buy lunch off campus. The teacher left a visiting college student in charge of the class, but that adult left the class when students who went to the library did not return.
"The little group who had been persecuting Ally were all in the class together," Mabry said.
When the adults were gone, a girl who had been regularly taunting Ally went to the blackboard and wrote something derogatory about her. Ally erased the message, but another replaced it.
When the girl dared Ally to hit her, she did. "She hit her so hard, she knocked the girl's permanent molar out," Mabry remembered.
When Mabry got the call to come to school, "I flipped," she remembered. She learned the school was considering taking legal action against Ally. She also figured out there was no adult in the room.
"It was a perfect storm brewing," Mabry said. With Ally out of school again, derogatory messages began to appear on Facebook. Some people suggested Mabry shut down the Facebook account, but Mabry said Facebook was Ally's only way to stay in touch with her old friends from Newnan – a connection she vitally needed in her new, friendless situation.
"Then it started with the cell phones," Mabry said. The senders were spoofing – using fake phone numbers that could not be traced.
Mabry talked with school officials about the problem but was told there was nothing they could do.
Then came the day when Mabry had Ally's phone and saw the message: "You're so ugly. You should just die." When Mabry talked with her daughter about the message, Ally showed her an electronic folder filled with similar messages.
Within a week of returning to school, Ally and another girl traded blows while in line for dismissal. The teacher did not see the fight, which was broken up by two other students.
Mabry contacted the principal. The upset mother told the administrator, "I'm not doing this anymore. I want to send her to school and know she is not only physically safe, but mentally safe."
The principal offered hospital/ homebound instruction as an alternative, but when Mabry contacted the county coordinator of the program, she was told it served "medically fragile children only."
In the meantime, the school had dropped Ally as a student. Mabry had to re-enroll her and was told Ally would not be allowed to make up any work missed during the 11 days she was not enrolled.
In the midst of the seemingly intractable bullying situation, other things were happening in Mabry's life. Her health began to decline, and she is convinced "all of the stress" played a big role.
Annise Mabry had enjoyed being a college administrator and found the stress of her job invigorating – quite different from the ongoing tension surrounding her daughter's school situation. The work-related stress "was not breaking me down," she said.
Mabry was eventually diagnosed with chronic inflammatory demyelinating polyneuropathy. CIDP is "a rare auto-immune disease," she said, describing it as a red-headed stepsibling of multiple sclerosis, which is much more common.
Her son, Niles Mabry, then in kindergarten, would not speak. Testing revealed he has Asperger's Syndrome.
The only person Mabry had known in Rockdale County when she moved there had moved away. "My entire support system was in Coweta County," she said. Eventually, Ally began studying at home – using online resources.
In 2011, Georgia Public Broadcasting was putting together a program on bullying. Mabry said Georgia had experienced "so many cases of bullying" in which the bullied children committed suicide.
When Mabry was contacted, she asked Ally what she thought. "We have an opportunity to make a difference for other students," she told her. Ally replied, "Mommy, let's do it."
The GPB story brought the Mabrys to the attention of the Oprah Winfrey Network. Their story on Ally's experience was televised on OWN on Sunday afternoon. The family sat down to watch their story unfold on the screen.
"The response – even on the Oprah Winfrey Network message boards – has been so overwhelmingly positive," Annise Mabry said.
Life is better for the Mabrys, but the scars of Ally's bullying remain. She suffers from post traumatic stress disorder and is in regular therapy.
Annise Mabry's health has also taken a good turn. "I'm finally stable," she said. A new treatment that involves electrical stimulation of her legs offers much promise.
Niles has also made regular improvement with a social therapist and speech therapists.
Annise Mabry is thankful she had education and training that helped her and Ally through the bullying crisis. "The tragedy in all of this is that there are so many children like Ally," she said, except without someone who can find a solution.
Mabry said she wants to see policies – and attention – addressing bullying.
"We've got to get real. Policies don't protect. They provide consequences, but they don't protect. School systems need to be held accountable," she said.
"My goal," Annise Mabry said, "is to share this story with as many people as possible."