By: Beth Purcell

They mean well – the parents who inevitably ask “Aren’t you concerned that your child won’t develop social skills?”  This is the most common question I get about my daughter, a six-year student at a full-time virtual school.  But as we observed National Bullying Awareness Month this October, I felt obligated  – as a mother and as a former teacher – to remind everyone of one key detail: Not all social exposure is positive.

Interactions in a traditional school setting can be abrasive, condescending and downright abusive. I refer to fellow students and, unfortunately, teachers as well. We cannot assume that traditional classroom settings are socially beneficial for our children. The harsh reality is that many students take a big hit to their self-confidence every day.

But online learning isn’t necessarily a panacea.  Students can tease and belittle via email, e-chat and social media postings just as pointedly as they can in the school cafeteria or gym locker room.  But virtual learning helps by providing an alternative, a choice.  Students may discover that their online classmates are more like them.  Or they may use the flexibility of online learning to deepen their social interactions with peers in non-academic settings – church groups, Scouts, neighborhood sports teams or community arts programs.  Sometimes these students just need a fresh start.

Research coinciding with National Bullying Awareness month reaffirms that full-time virtual learning can help bullied students refocus on their education and put negative social experiences behind them. Of 2,000 parents interviewed by Edge Research, 94 percent say attending online school has helped with their child’s bullying experience. Ninety-six percent would recommend online learning to the families of other children who are bullied.

I, too, would recommend online school to these families – not as a haven, but as an alternative.  I’d also recommend it to the families of students who suffer from other “distractions,” such as health struggles or ADHD.  Online learning can foster remarkable focus.

But when students look to online learning for a fresh start, their parents may encounter another source of bullying…from establishment bureaucrats who want to limit our children to a public school that doesn’t work for them.  For reasons of self-interest, they want to ignore the reality of problems like bullying and refute the need for choice.

But parents will push back.  Whether by attending school board meetings, calling state legislators, writing our local newspapers or rallying on the steps of our state capitols, we will say our piece.  Students who endure bullying should have another option.  So should students who suffer learning challenges or chronic health conditions.   And students who are limited in traditional brick-and-mortar schools from pursuing their passions – for instance, their artistic or athletic gifts.

National Bullying Month reminded us that intimidation, harassment and threats cannot be the norm for our public school students.  The children for whom these are everyday occurrences deserve the option to learn elsewhere.  They – like all public school children – deserve a choice.

And on that point, this mom will not be bullied.

Beth Purcell is the Board President of PublicSchoolsOptions.org.

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