Every parent wants to protect his or her child. But during the hours when children are at school, kids must fend for themselves. It's part of learning to eventually function as an adult.

When things go right on the school bus and at the lunch table, kids learn to negotiate, make friends and resolve differences. But when things go wrong, they can go very, very wrong.

That was the case on Feb. 18, when a father stood up at the Unionville-Chadds Ford school board meeting and blindsided the board with an emotional – at times nearly tearful – plea for his two sixth-grade sons.   

"Right now, my boys are home with their mother, having anxiety about going to the school bus stop tomorrow," the father said. 

In a scenario that was all too familiar to anyone who has been bullied, the father detailed what he said were repeated, unprovoked incidents of harassment and intimidation by another middle-school student. His was clearly frustrated by what he saw as a lack of options. 

While it's easy to dismiss bullying as the product of immaturity and insecurity, that doesn't help the student who's on the receiving end of taunts. In the sixth grade, kids are not prepared to deflect comments and slurs, so they shut down. They avoid certain hallways, they duck into their seat on the bus, afraid to look up. Sometimes, they are scarred for life.

It was clear that the father at the meeting was trying to do something – anything – to steer his sons away from the stigma of being “the fat kid” or “the weird kid” for the duration of their middle-school years. While his claims may have been a bit exaggerated, as representatives of the school district are now claiming, the fact is that the situation on the bus had caused frayed nerves, and it requires a firm response.

But in trying to somehow legislate the rivalries and stupidity of the middle-school years, the district is merely putting paper over a chronic wound. To their credit, the district's anti-bullying policy has been the focus of considerable attention in the past year or so, and board member Kathleen Do has spearheaded an effort to give the policy clear guidelines and put some teeth into the consequences.

But like a protection-from-abuse order, a piece of paper in a file drawer cannot protect a sixth-grader who's being pummelled in the boy's room. And it's the escalation of bullying that has prompted school districts nationwide to dust off their policies and try to cope. We all know what happens when bullying goes to an extreme. Some kids commit suicide, and other kids pick up weapons and start shooting.

At the school board meeting, a shaken Do said, "What was described tonight really broke my heart. … What we have been saying is that if one child is being bullied, then we have a bullying problem. When we began this, people would say, 'Why are you doing this? We don't have a bullying problem here.' There is no district that is immune. … Clearly, this is work that will never be done.”

She's right, of course. As long as kids are going through the process of growing up, there will be bullies and victims. The idea is to keep the insults few, make the punches have strict consequences, and turn the perpetrators toward a healthier path. 

The school board and administration deserve credit for addressing the issue, but as they learned on Feb. 18, sometimes paperwork is just not enough.