Failure To Protect
What Really Goes on Behind School Doors?
When the classroom is no longer a safe space for her child, a grieving mother is determined to seek justice for her bullied daughter. Enter hard-charging attorneys Angela Evans and Jenny Ungerman. From the start, the two lawyers face more than an uphill battle.
An ambitious school principal is far more concerned about protecting her career than getting to the truth. She flat out denies any knowledge of the bullying and prefers to sweep everything under the rug. But just how low will she go?
As the battle enters the courtroom, the attorneys fight hard to expose the truth. But will a massive coverup hinder their quest for justice?
Read an Excerpt Below!
Nobody cares about me. Not even God.
Just because I’m a kid, grown-ups think I don’t have problems. They tell me stupid stuff like, Bailey, you have to learn to stand up for yourself. Or Just ignore them and they’ll leave you alone. And the lamest one of all, Just pray about it. God’ll handle it.
I tried that last one about a thousand times. But like I said, God don’t care about me.
Even if I reported Kenya Jackson to my new teacher, it wouldn’t help. Mrs. Phillips is really nice, but all she’s going to do is send me to the principal’s office. Then Kenya will be even meaner to me for getting her in trouble.
That’s what happened when I told on a girl at my old school. After she got in trouble, she waited until there weren’t any adults around and pushed me into a restroom stall and stuffed my book bag in the toilet. I never told anybody about that.
I want to tell my mom what’s going on at my new school, but she’s got enough to worry about. She just got promoted to be the first black marketing manager at her company and now she works even harder than she did before. After she gets home, she still has more work to do on her laptop. The other night, she fell asleep right in the middle of helping me with my science project.
Since we moved to our gigantic house in Baldwin Hills with the dope view and a supposedly better school, she thinks everything’s all good and that makes her happy. I’m glad to see her smiling again. We were both super sad for a long time after my dad died. I guess she hasn’t noticed that I’m not smiling yet.
At my old school in Inglewood, when the principal told her that maybe I’d be “more successful in another environment,” my mom almost lost it. I was ready to lose it too. Anybody would be more successful if they weren’t being bullied all the time.
I wish my mom could understand what I’m going through. She wants me to be more like her, but I can’t. Sometimes she says stuff that really hurts my feelings.
I just don’t understand why you can’t make friends.
You have to try harder to meet other little girls.
When I was nine years old, everybody wanted to be my friend.
Well, nobody wants to be friends with me.
One time, I almost told my mom what was going on at Parker Elementary. But then I got scared that she would say it’s my fault because I don’t know how to make friends. So, I just keep it to myself. Every morning, right before I walk into school, I get the worst stomach ache you could ever have. It feels like a bunch of hot rocks are playing foosball in my stomach.
If my mom knew about Kenya spitting in my face, it would be one hot mess. She’s usually very professional, but if she found out what was really going on, she would turn straight ghetto and go off on everybody at the school. Then she’d end up in jail and I’d have to go into foster care. That’s what happened to my friend Trey in first grade when his mom slapped the cashier at Walmart.
Okay, I wouldn’t really have to go into foster care. I would probably have to go live with my granny in Oakland or my Uncle Marcus in Atlanta.
If I had my choice, though, I’d rather stay with my Uncle Dre. He’s really my godfather, but I pretend like he’s my uncle. One time, when he picked me up from school, I tried to tell him about Kenya always roasting me. I was surprised that he didn’t even know what roasting was. After I explained that it means dissin’ you real hard, he just hugged me and told me I had to toughen up.
You’ll be okay, he said.
But he’s wrong. I’m definitely not going to be okay.
“Please, Uncle Dre, let me stay home with you today. Maybe you can homeschool me. Please!”
Dre scratched his shaved head and laughed. “Unfortunately, I’m not smart enough to homeschool you or anybody else.”
“I’m serious,” Bailey pleaded, her face twisted in terror. “Please don’t make me go!”
As his Jeep inched along behind the line of cars doing drop-offs in front of Parker Elementary School, Dre looked over his shoulder at the cute little girl sitting in his back seat. Bailey’s stress level was way too high. She’d had a few run-ins with a bully at her old school, but he assumed the transfer to Parker had fixed everything.
“What’s going on? Why don’t you want to go to school?”
Bailey hugged her book bag to her chest as if it was a life raft that might slip away. “I just don’t.”
“C’mon, talk to me. Is somebody bothering you here too?”
After a long beat, Bailey slowly raised her head up and down.
Dre had intentionally used the word bothering, not bullying. He was tired of hearing all the hoopla about bullies. Kids getting picked on was nothing new. It happened in his day and would keep happening until the end of time. Sometimes life is just hard. Kids need to know that sooner rather than later.
Truth be told, today’s kids were just too damn soft. People turned backflips to protect them from the realities of life. Like everybody getting a trophy just for participating. That was the stupidest crap he’d ever heard.
“Please don’t tell my mom,” Bailey begged, her brown eyes glassy with tears. “She’ll fuss at me for not standing up for myself.”
Dre reached back and gave Bailey’s foot a playful squeeze. “No, she won’t. But you do need to learn how to stand up for yourself. If somebody’s being mean to you, you have my permission to be mean right back.”
He wasn’t condoning violence, but if another kid started some mess, the only way to show ‘em you weren’t no punk was to clap back twice as hard. Most bullies were nothing but wimps anyway. Once you stood up to them, they backed off. That’s what he’d taught his son to do and Little Dre had never had a problem. He just had to teach Bailey to do the same.
“You don’t get it,” Bailey huffed, her shoulders drooping. “That won’t help.”
They were almost at the drop-off point, when Dre steered his Jeep out of the line of cars and made a hasty U-turn in the middle of the street.
Bailey sprang forward in her seat. “We’re going home?”
“Nope.” Dre pulled to a stop along the curb across the street. “I’m walking you inside. I want you to show me the kids who’re messing with you.”
Bailey flopped back against the seat, her lips puckering into a stiff pout. “That’ll just make it worse.”
Turning off the engine, Dre hopped out and jogged around to open the back door. “Let’s go.”
He took Bailey’s hand as they stepped into the crosswalk. The closer they got to the school doors, the slower Bailey walked. By the time they reached the entrance, Dre felt like he was tugging a sixty-pound bag of potatoes behind him.
“Please, Uncle Dre,” Bailey whispered in a panic, glancing all around. “Please don’t make me go!” Her tiny hand clutched two of his fingers.
Dre took Bailey off to the side, squatted until they were at eye level, and caressed her shoulders.
“I don’t know what’s going on, but there’s no reason for you to be this stressed out about going to school. If somebody’s messing with you, I need to know about it. What’s the kid’s name?”
Bailey hung her head as a tear slid down her right cheek. For a second, Dre thought she was finally about to come clean.
“It doesn’t matter,” she mumbled, hoisting her book bag higher on her shoulder.
“Yes, it —”
Bailey jerked away from him and dashed inside the school.
He was just about to go after her when a woman took a side step, blocking his path.
“I’m sorry, sir. May I help you?”
Dre flinched at the suspicion in the woman’s caustic voice. He pointed behind her, growing anxious as he lost sight of Bailey. “I was dropping off Bailey. Bailey Lewis.”
Lifting her chin, the woman folded her arms at the waist. “And you are?”
“I’m Bailey’s”— he paused— “uh, I’m Bailey’s godfather.” He’d started to introduce himself as her uncle to make himself sound more legit.
“Your name?” Her tone conveyed all the warmth of an ice chest.
Dre pegged the woman to be in her early-forties. Her straight black hair fell just below her chin in a blunt cut that matched her funky disposition. She was wearing a sleeveless, form-fitting red dress that hugged every inch of her curvy frame. Actually, she was kind of hot. Taraji P. Henson with a bad attitude.
“Bailey’s mother didn’t tell us someone else would be bringing her to school today.”
She looked him up and down like he was some pedophile on the prowl for a new victim.
Dre couldn’t seem to pull his eyes away. Despite an innate seductiveness, the woman still managed to carry herself with the spit-shine polish of a CEO. If professionalism had a smell, she would reek.
“Erika had a meeting in Irvine and asked me to drop her off.”
Dre shifted his weight from one foot to the other. It was rare for someone—especially a female—to make him feel this degree of uneasiness. “I’m sorry, I didn’t get your name.”
“I’m Ms. Freeman. The principal.”
He should’ve guessed. A sister with a little power.
“I’ll be dropping Bailey off and picking her up from time to time,” Dre said, anxious for the chick to move out of his way so he could go after Bailey. “Erika just got a big promotion. So her job’s a lot more demanding now.”
“Is that right?”
“Yep, that’s right.” What’s up with this chick?
“Please ask Ms. Lewis to email Bailey’s counselor to verify that you’re authorized to pick her up from school.”
Dre nodded. “Will do.”
He still wanted to go inside, but the woman stayed put like a queen guarding the gates of her castle.
Without saying goodbye, Dre pivoted and headed back across the street. As he opened the door to his Jeep, he made a mental note to have a talk with Erika. She’d been thrilled about getting Bailey into Parker Elementary because of its stellar reputation. But the place might not be any better for Bailey than her old school.
Dre also couldn’t shake the feeling that something wasn’t quite right. And not just with Bailey.
Bailey wiped the tears from her eyes and speed walked down the hallway since running wasn’t allowed. She wanted to look back to see if her Uncle Dre was coming after her. But if she turned around and he wasn’t there, that would make her even sadder.
Farther ahead, Bailey saw her classmates lined up along the wall outside Mrs. Phillips’ classroom. She spotted Kenya Jackson near the front of the line and wanted to throw up. At least the girl’s back was turned. If Bailey zoomed past her really fast, maybe she could make it to the end of the line before Kenya could say something nasty to her.
Picking up speed, Bailey kept her focus straight ahead. Just as she was about to pass the girl, Kenya stuck her foot out. Bailey’s book bag flew off her shoulder and she stumbled to the ground, landing on her hands and knees.
Kenya led the chorus of laughter that followed from the rest of her classmates. “Miss Goody Two-shoes thinks she’s cute, but she looks like an ugly black monkey looking for a banana.”
The other kids in line snickered and pointed down at her. But when the classroom door opened, they all went mute.
“Good morn—” The smiled tumbled from her teacher’s face. “My goodness! Bailey, are you okay?” Mrs. Phillips ran over and helped her up.
Bailey’s knees burned with pain. “Yeah, I’m okay.”
Kenya gave Bailey the stink eye, daring her to tell.
“I dunno. I just fell, I guess.” She reached down to pick up her book bag, noticing that her knees were skinned and red.
“I’m taking you to the nurse’s office.”
Mrs. Phillips was Bailey’s favorite teacher because she smiled all the time and wore a ponytail and brightly colored dresses that made her look like a teenager instead of a grown-up.
“That’s okay, Mrs. Phillips. I’m okay.” The nurse would have to call her mom, who wouldn’t be happy about having to leave work to see about her.
“Let me go get some paper towels.”
The minute the teacher disappeared inside the classroom, Kenya whispered, “You better keep your ugly mouth shut, teacher’s pet.”
“Yeah,” Morgan echoed. “You think you’re all that, but you ain’t.”
Morgan never acted mean to her unless Kenya was around.
“You say one word,” Kenya continued, “and I’ma beat your ass after school.”
All the kids hooped and hollered over the excitement of a possible fight as Bailey limped to the end of the line.
Kenya was just plain evil. She wished she could be mean right back to her like her Uncle Dre told her to do, but she was too scared. Kenya would try to kill her if she did that.
Gabriela Lopez, who was last in line, turned around and whispered, “You okay?”
Bailey nodded. Gabriela was always nice to her, but she couldn’t risk being her friend. Anybody who acted like they liked her would get bullied too. Gabriela only talked to her when nobody else could hear.
Bailey didn’t understand why Kenya picked on her all the time. She wasn’t a goody two-shoes. And she certainly wasn’t the teacher’s pet. Mrs. Phillips was nice to everybody.
Her teacher returned and waved everyone inside. When Bailey reached the doorway, she stooped to rub Wet Wipes across her knees, drying up the faint spots of blood.
“Are you sure you’re okay?”
No, stupid! I’m not! But instead she said, “Yeah.”
This had to be the third or fourth time Mrs. Phillips appeared just seconds after Kenya had done something mean to her. Couldn’t she tell something was wrong? Grownups were so clueless.
Mrs. Phillips shut the classroom door behind her and looked down at Bailey. “Did someone push you down?”
“No, Mrs. Phillips. I swear. Nobody pushed me.” That was the truth. Tripping somebody wasn’t the same as pushing them.
“You can talk to me, Bailey.”
No, I can’t.
Bailey had told Mrs. Phillips about Kenya bumping into her in the hallway and pushing her into the wall, hurting her shoulder. That time, she was finally ready to tell her teacher about all the other mean stuff Kenya was doing. Before she could get the words out, Mrs. Phillips said it must’ve been an accident because the hallway was so crowded. But it wasn’t an accident. Kenya did it on purpose.
Her teacher prodded a little more, then gave up, leading Bailey inside.
Mrs. Phillips instructed everyone to walk single file to the front of the classroom to retrieve their iPads from a basket near the blackboard.
“Go to chapter three of your reading.” She pointed to the same instructions written on the board. “Everyone read quietly for fifteen minutes. Then we’re going to discuss the questions at the end of the chapter.”
Bailey prayed that Mrs. Phillips didn’t call on her to read today. She loved reading, but that would just make Kenya pick on her more.
Minutes later, her dread turned into reality.
“Bailey, can you read the first question out loud and answer it for us?”
She slid down a couple of inches in her chair.
“Mrs. Phillips always calls on her,” Kenya sneered from two seats behind. “Go ahead and read, teacher’s pet.”
Bailey did as instructed and was relieved when the teacher moved on to another student.
Just as she was about to relax, something stung the back of her neck. She didn’t need to turn around. Kenya was always shooting spitballs at her. Tears began to well in Bailey’s eyes. She would never understand why Kenya hated her so much.
Elijah and Sophia, who sat on either side of Kenya, snickered.
Bailey wished Mrs. Phillips would catch them laughing and make them stop.
Near the end of the class, an idea came to Bailey that gave her a dose of hope. She would show everybody that she wasn’t a goody two-shoes.
“Alright,” the teacher called out, “put your iPads back in the basket.”
One row at a time, kids began marching to the front of the classroom. Bailey didn’t move. It didn’t take Mrs. Phillips long to see that Bailey was still holding her iPad, staring at the screen.
The teacher gave her a stern look, but she pretended not to notice.
How come you can see me now, but you never notice Kenya messing with me?
“Bailey, will you please put your iPad away?”
She sucked in a big gulp of air, closed her eyes and yelled, “No!”
“Whoooooo.” The whole class sounded off in a chorus of stunned surprise.
Mrs. Phillips walked up to Bailey’s desk, her lips fixed in a frown.
“I’m very surprised at your behavior, young lady.” She took the iPad from her hands.
At the end of class, the other students seemed to rise from their seats in slow motion. Bailey wasn’t off the hook yet and they wanted to see what punishment she would get.
As Bailey stood up, wishing she could fly out of the room like Peter Pan, Mrs. Phillips called out to her.
“Bailey, please come up front. I’d like to speak with you.”
Dre turned onto Edgehill Street and pulled into the driveway of the fourth house from the corner. He cut the engine and leaned back against the headrest.
Sometimes he enjoyed just sitting in the driveway admiring the place. If his life could be described in colors, his world had gone from dingy gray to sunlight yellow since hooking up with Angela. The home they were leasing in Leimert Park possessed the perfect vibe for him: quiet and hip without feeling bourgeois. Once called the black Greenwich Village, Leimert Park remained an epicenter of the contemporary African-American arts scene in Los Angeles.
Dre had weathered a few rough spots in his life, but meeting Angela had served as a course correction. The fact that a dude with his past had a woman who was an attorney with her own law practice was proof of just how far he had come since his drug-dealing days. A life so far behind him he needed a microscope to even catch a glimpse of it.
He climbed out of the Jeep just as a moving truck eased into the driveway of the house across the street.
Seconds later, a white Prius pulled up to the curb and a young white couple, probably in their mid-thirties like he and Angela, climbed out.
He couldn’t believe the number of young white couples moving into Leimert Park. He was used to seeing them in neighboring View Park and Ladera Heights because the homes there were in the seven figures. But the white flight of the fifties and sixties, had left Leimert Park mostly black, with a large smattering of Japanese Americans. Now the kids and grandkids of the whites who’d fled when blacks moved in, seemed to be returning in droves.
Once inside, he peered through the front picture window, watching the couple converse with the movers. Dre pulled out his cell phone.
“It’s snowing again,” Dre said, when Angela picked up.
“Boy, stop it,” she scolded him.
Snowing was Dre’s phrase for the increasing gentrification of their neighborhood.
“Another whiter-than-white couple is moving into the house across the street. Pretty soon, this neighborhood’s going to be all white.”
“I doubt that. Go over and introduce yourself.”
“I don’t think so.”
“If they were black, you would’ve already done it. All the white folks moving in just means our property values are going up.”
“You do remember that we have a lease with an option to buy, don’t you? I want the property values to stay right where they are until we own this place.”
“Good point,” Angela said with a laugh.
They’d agree to live together for a year, before deciding if marriage was the right move. Dre was already sure.
He turned away from the window, sat down on the living room couch and quietly inhaled. There was something he needed to tell Angela.
“I just got back from taking Bailey to school.”
“Yeah, uh, Erika had an early meeting and asked me to drop her off.”
Dre knew he should stop talking, but couldn’t seem to shut his mouth. “I told her she could count on me since she doesn’t have anyone else.”
Angela finally responded. “Yeah, okay.”
Dre sighed inwardly. Angela definitely was not okay about what he’d just told her. But Dre felt an obligation to Erika and Bailey that he could not, would not shirk. Bailey’s father, Earl, had been a friend and mentor to Dre after he’d done time at Cochran State Prison for drug dealing. Dre now had a successful house-flipping business because Earl had taken him under his wing and taught him a legit business.
Earl’s death from bone cancer hit everyone hard. Dre would never forget his deathbed plea nine months ago to take care of my girls. Angela would just have to understand.
He had tried bringing Erika and Angela together in the hope that they would bond. That hadn’t happened. Initially, Dre was surprised when he’d picked up on Angela’s jealousy because he had never sensed that she was insecure about their relationship. But in the end, Dre knew that women were women, no matter how fine, how smart or how much cash they had in the bank. Angela would never admit being threatened by Erika, but she was. For that reason, Dre always treaded lightly.
At least Angela had bonded with Bailey. Whenever the two of them were together, any observer would’ve thought Bailey was her child.
“I gotta go,” Angela said, her jovial mood, now impatient. “I have a client coming in.”
The phone went dead.
Dre sighed, shaking his head. “Goodbye to you too.”
He sent Erika a quick text, asking her to email the school so he didn’t have any issues regarding Bailey in the future.
Grabbing a banana from the kitchen counter, Dre headed for the door. He had work to do on a duplex he was rehabbing in Hawthorne. His buddy Gus was there now installing hardwood floors. He was about to jump back into his Jeep, but instead tossed the banana onto the passenger seat and closed the door.
Angela was right. He needed to welcome his new neighbors to Leimert Park.