A group of 10 boys at face discipline for kicking students with red hair Wednesday after they copied an Internet bullying campaign originally influenced by a South Park episode, according to principal Steve Livingway.
The boys, a group of seventh- and eighth-graders, admitted to the attacks and to organizing "Kick a Ginger Day" locally on Facebook. They are receiving punishments, including suspension in some cases, Livingway said. In addition, their parents have been notified.
"We do not tolerate it," he said. "It was one of the dumbest things I've ever heard."
The behavior — which wasn't considered severe enough to contact police — was curtailed after a 10 a.m. schoolwide announcement was made in the middle of classes about the attacks and that those involved would be punished, Livingway said. He added he can't recall needing to do that before.
"It's died down and stopped," he said. "If more happens to come up, we'll deal with it."
As many as three boys reported being kicked in the hallways, but there could have been more, he said. Officials are now in the midst of meeting with their parents to address any concerns they may have.
One mom of a child attacked raised the issue Thursday on Hartland Patch's Facebook page.
"My son came home with bruises," wrote Starr Odette. "Please educate your children on this type of bullying! People with red hair are people like the rest of us."
Odette could not be reached for further comment Thursday.
From South Park to Facebook
The attackers learned about "Kick a Ginger Day" on the Internet, Livingway said. He said many of the children had never been in trouble like this before but seemed to get carried away over Facebook.
Redheads began to be targeted in similar attacks in the United States and Canada in November 2008 when a Vancouver, BC, teen organized a now defunct Facebook group that called for "Kick a Ginger Day" and incidents have occurred sporadically ever since, including this year.
Attacks in February have been reported in Litchfield County, CT, according to the Litchfield County Times. Even more recently, a Windsor, ONT, teen was kicked more than 20 times in September, according to The Windsor Star.
A 2005 South Park episode, Ginger Kids, is cited as the craze's influence, even though, as the The Star noted, it attempts to "satirize bigotry by featuring hate speech against 'Gingers.'"
Confronting the problem
Livingway said this was the first time he heard about the day in his 15 years as an administrator, although he added that cyber-bullying is a well-known and growing problem in Hartland while a face-to-face bullying appears to be waning slightly.
He said parents could help the schools if they monitored their children's social media more, especially Facebook.
"(This) was a complete surprise to us," he said. "I'd rather get a heads up that turned out to be nothing."
Hartland also has several proactive measures it's been undertaking to address the problem, Livingway said. The district has a policy against all forms of bullying and this year installed a link on the middle school's website to anonymously report any bullying or safety concerns.
Livingway said he believes the school might be the first in the state to have such a link to Sprigo, a website that offers the service to districts in seven states. He said the school is getting five to 10 reports a week and while some are not legitimate, many are.
In addition, in the aftermath of the Columbine attacks in 1999, the middle school began to employ a program about 10 years ago used across the country called Challenge Day, in which students learn the nature of bullying and their underlying causes.
Livingway said the day underscores how any solution needs punishment but also outreach to the person engaged in the bullying because they often were either bullied themselves or experiencing other problems in the home.
One segment of the day allows students to speak out that oftentimes leads to moving stories from victims as to why it was hurtful and apologies from the bullies themselves, he said.
This year Challenge Day is held daily for separate groups of seventh-graders from Dec. 6-8 and Livingway expects this week's incident to be addressed.
"This is a classic case of it," he said.