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!
Just because I’m only nine years old, 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 Try to make friends with the bully. And the lamest one of all, Just ignore them and they’ll leave you alone.
I tried that last one about a thousand times. It definitely doesn’t work.
Even if I report Kiya Jackson to my teacher, she’s not going to stop bullying me. She’ll probably be even meaner.
That’s what happened when I got a girl in trouble at my old school in Inglewood. 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 been super sad ever since my dad died. She always wears a fake smile, like a human happy-face emoji. I try to make her feel better by acting excited when she cooks me pancakes for dinner or buys me toys I don’t even want. But it doesn’t work. I hear her crying herself to sleep almost every night. I used to cry about missing my dad too. Now I mostly cry because my mom is so sad.
When she got promoted last month to be the first black marketing manager at her company, we had a fun dinner at TGI Friday’s—just me and my mom. Now, she works harder than before. Even after she gets home at night, 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.
Ever since we moved into our new house in Baldwin Hills so I could go to a supposedly better school, my mom thinks everything’s all good with me. But it’s not. She hasn’t noticed that my smile is faker than hers.
At my other school, 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 I could tell my mom how bad it is, but I can’t. She wants me to be more like her and sometimes she says stuff that hurts my feelings.
I don’t understand why you can’t make friends.
You have to try harder to meet other little girls.
As cute as you are, all those kids should want to be your friend.
Well, nobody wants to be friends with me.
One time, I almost told her what was going on at Parker Elementary. But that would make her worry about me. So I keep it to myself. Every morning, right before I walk into school, I get the worst stomachache you could ever have. Even worse than the time I got food poisoning.
If my mom found out about Kiya spitting in my face and posting all that nasty stuff about me on Instagram, it would be one hot mess. She’s usually very professional, but if she knew the truth, 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 mother slapped the cashier at Walmart.
Okay, I wouldn’t have to go into foster care for real. 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 Kiya 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 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. Can you homeschool me? Please!”
Dre stroked his goatee 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 long line of cars dropping off kids in front of Parker Elementary School, Dre peered 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 were a life raft. “I just don’t.”
“C’mon, talk to me. Is somebody bothering you here too?”
After a long beat, Bailey slowly bobbed her head.
Dre had purposely 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.
Truth be told, today’s kids were too damn soft. People turned backflips to protect them from the realities of life. Like everybody getting a freakin’ trophy just for participating. That was the stupidest crap he’d ever heard. Sometimes life is hard. Kids need to know that sooner rather than later.
“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 have to start standing 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 wimps. Once you got in their face, they backed off. That’s what he’d taught his son to do and, to his knowledge, Little Dre had never had a problem. He would 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’s upper body sprang forward. “We’re going home?”
“Nope.” Dre pulled to a stop along the curb. “I’m walking you inside. I want you to show me who’s messing with you.”
Bailey slumped back against the seat, her lips protruding into a 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.
“Please, Uncle Dre,” Bailey whispered, glancing all around. “Please don’t make me go!” Her tiny hand clutched two of his fingers.
Dre led 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 about to come clean.
“It doesn’t matter,” she mumbled, hoisting her book bag higher on her shoulder.
Bailey jerked away from him and dashed inside the school.
He was about to go after her when a woman stepped in front of him, blocking his path.
“May I help you, sir?”
The woman’s chin jutted forward like an accusing finger pointing him out in a lineup. “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 but changed his mind.
“Your name?” Her tone conveyed all the warmth of an icicle.
Dre pegged the woman to be in her early forties. Her thick, black hair fell a couple of inches below her ears in a blunt cut that matched her funky disposition. Her sleeveless, form-fitting, red dress hugged every inch of her curvy frame. Actually, she was kinda hot. Kerry Washington’s classy style with Cookie Lyon’s 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 an early meeting in Irvine and asked me to drop her off.”
Dre ran a hand over his shaved head. Rarely did anybody—especially a female—make him feel this degree of uneasiness. “I’m sorry. I didn’t get your name.”
“I’m the principal. Darcella Freeman.”
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 got a big promotion. Her job’s a lot more demanding now.”
“Is that right?”
“Yep, that’s right.” What’s up with this chick?
“Please ask Bailey’s mother to email the office authorizing you 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’s classroom. She spotted Kiya Jackson and wanted to throw up. She was so tired of Kiya messing with her every single day. If Bailey could turn invisible, she would hit Kiya in the head with her book bag.
At least the girl’s back was turned. If Bailey walked super-fast, maybe she could make it to the end of the line before Kiya could say something nasty to her.
Picking up speed, Bailey kept her focus straight ahead. As she was about to pass the girl, Kiya stuck out her foot. Bailey’s book bag flew off her shoulder and she stumbled to the ground, landing on her hands and knees.
Kiya 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 pointed down at her, laughing so hard they were holding their stomachs. But when Mrs. Phillips ran up, it all stopped.
“My goodness! Bailey, are you okay?”
Her teacher put down the box she was carrying and helped her up. Bailey really liked Mrs. Phillips because she smiled all the time and wore a ponytail and brightly colored dresses that made her look like a teenager.
Bailey’s knees burned with pain. “Yeah, I’m okay.”
Kiya gave Bailey the stink eye, daring her to snitch.
“I dunno. I just fell. I guess.” As she picked up her book bag, she noticed that her knees were skinned and dotted with blood.
“I’m taking you to the nurse’s office.”
“That’s okay, Mrs. Phillips. I’m okay.”
The nurse would have to call her mom. Bailey didn’t want to get her in trouble for having to leave the office in the middle of the day.
“Let me go get some paper towels.”
The instant the teacher disappeared inside the classroom, Kiya 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 Kiya was around.
“You say one word,” Kiya hissed, “and I’ma beat your ass after school.”
As Bailey limped to the end of the line, the other kids hooped and hollered over the possibility of a fight.
Kiya was just plain evil. She wished she could be mean right back to her like her Uncle Dre wanted her to, but she was too afraid.
Gabriela Lopez turned around and whispered to her. “Are you okay?”
Bailey nodded. Gabriela was always nice to her but couldn’t risk being her friend. Anybody who acted as if they liked her would be bullied too. Gabriela only talked to her when nobody else could hear.
“Don’t be upset about what Kiya posted on Instagram last night,” Gabriella said. “She’s just jealous of you because you’re pretty and smart and she isn’t.”
Not again. Kiya hadn’t posted #Baileygokillyourself on Instagram for at least two weeks. Bailey assumed Kiya had stopped because she liked bullying her in person better than doing it online.
Bailey didn’t understand why Kiya picked on her so much. She wasn’t a goody two-shoes. And she certainly wasn’t the teacher’s pet. Mrs. Phillips liked all of her students.
Her teacher returned and waved everyone inside. When Bailey reached the doorway, Mrs. Phillips 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 showed up three seconds after Kiya had done something mean to her. Couldn’t she tell something was wrong? Grownups were so clueless. Bailey didn’t know how much longer she could take Kiya’s bullying and the other kids making fun of her. Instead of going to school, she wished she could stay in bed and sleep all day like her mom did on weekends.
Mrs. Phillips shut the classroom door behind her. “Did someone make you fall?”
Bailey’s eyes fell to the floor. “No.”
“You can talk to me, Bailey.”
No, I can’t.
She had told Mrs. Phillips about Kiya bumping into her in the hallway and pushing her into the wall, hurting her shoulder. That time, she almost told her teacher about the Instagram posts and all the other mean stuff Kiya was doing. Before she could get the words out, though, Mrs. Phillips said maybe Kiya accidentally bumped into her because the hallway was so crowded. It wasn’t an accident. Kiya did it on purpose.
“Bailey, is Kiya Jackson bullying you?”
Her head shot up with a smile so big it made her face hurt. Bailey’s smiley face was even better than her mom’s.
“No, Mrs. Phillips,” she lied. “I just tripped over my own feet.”
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 staring at 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 guy with his past had a woman who was an attorney with her own law practice was proof of how far he had come since his drug-dealing days. A life so far behind him he’d need a microscope to catch even a glimpse of it.
He climbed out of the Jeep just as a moving truck eased into the driveway across the street.
Seconds later, a silver Prius pulled up to the curb and a white couple, probably in their mid-thirties like he and Angela, climbed out.
Dre couldn’t believe the number of whites moving in. 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 predominantly 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.
“I’m calling with another wypipo alert,” Dre said when Angela picked up.
Angela laughed. Dre was a big-time devotee of writer and poet Michael Harriot, a self-proclaimed wypipologist—someone who studies white people. Dre constantly quoted from Harriot’s insightful and often hilarious social commentary on TheRoot.com.
“Which house?” Angela asked.
“The one directly across the street. Pretty soon, this neighborhood’s going to be all white.”
“I doubt that. Go over and introduce yourself.”
“I’ll pass on that.”
“If they were black, you would’ve already done it. All the white folks moving in 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 them to stay right where they are until we own this place.”
They had agreed to live together for a year, before deciding if marriage was the right move. Dre didn’t need a year. He was all in.
Turning away from the window, he sat down on the living room couch. There was something he needed to tell Angela.
“I had to take Bailey to school this morning.”
“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. “She’s still having a hard time over Earl’s death. I’m just trying to help in any way I can.”
“Yeah, okay,” Angela responded.
He sighed. Angela most definitely was not okay with what he’d just told her.
Dre felt an obligation to Erika and Bailey that he could not and would not shirk. Bailey’s father, Earl, had become his friend and mentor after Dre’s release from Corcoran 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 way to make a living.
Earl’s death from bone cancer hit everyone hard. He was only forty-one. Dre would never forget his deathbed plea nine months ago to take care of my girls. Angela would 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’d never sensed that she was insecure about their relationship. But in the end, Dre understood that women were women, no matter how fine, how smart or how much cash they had in the bank. Angela would never admit she was 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’s jovial mood had vanished. “I have a client coming in.”
The phone went dead.
Dre shook 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 with the principal in the future.
Grabbing a bottle of water from the fridge, Dre headed out. He was almost done refacing the kitchen cabinets at a duplex he was rehabbing in Hawthorne. Instead of climbing back in his Jeep, Dre placed the bottle in the cupholder and closed the door.
Angela was right. He should show a little hospitality and welcome his new neighbors to the hood.