Bullied, beaten and driven out of her school: Girl, 14, became a pariah after asking if people who weren’t black could be victims of racism during a class debate on Black Lives Matter
The message from Becky’s school — innocuous in its vagueness — merely reported that there had been an ‘incident’. It was much more than that: in fact, Becky’s parents discovered their daughter had been brutally assaulted by a fellow pupil. Clumps of her hair had been pulled out.
Her face and body were bruised, her lip swollen. So severe were the injuries to her legs, she was unable to walk for a fortnight.
But as bad as the physical battering was, its aftermath had more far-reaching and pernicious consequences: friends of Becky’s 14-year-old assailant had filmed the attack on their smartphones and posted it online like some grotesque badge of honour.
The next day, the vilification of Becky — which had begun four months earlier with taunts, harassment and name-calling within her school — was complete. A montage of photos, insults and accusations was posted online by an unknown troll and viewed 1,400 times. Bullied, beaten and humiliated in the supposed sanctuary of her school, a high-achieving mixed comprehensive with a good Ofsted rating, Becky, also 14, now felt under siege everywhere in the affluent town in eastern England where she lived.
Her face and body were bruised, her lip swollen. So severe were the injuries to her legs, she was unable to walk for a fortnight. File image
‘She did not feel she could go back to school and face her enemies. She retreated to her bedroom and withdrew from the world. She became a prisoner,’ says her mum Andrea.
And the reason? Becky, who is herself the daughter of second-generation immigrants, had ventured an opinion in an impromptu classroom debate sparked by Black Lives Matter (BLM) in July 2021 and been instantly labelled a racist.
‘Couldn’t other nationalities, besides black people, be victims of racism?’ she had asked in a spirit of genuine inquiry.
‘BLM was a hot topic at the time and some pupils had been discussing it during a maths lesson when Becky chipped in with her question,’ recalls her mum Andrea.
‘She was broadening the conversation to ask about respect for all nationalities and cultures, and it was taken out of context and entirely misconstrued by her classmates.’
Becky’s father David adds: ‘In that instant she was labelled a ‘racist’ and ‘cancelled’. It was as if a monster had been unleashed.’
Months of vicious harassment — only temporarily interrupted by the school holidays — ensued. Then came the beating, after which Becky’s parents were swift to act and her school (to its credit) expelled her attacker the next day. While the school reported the assault to the police, David says: ‘We didn’t want to press charges because we took a moral view that we didn’t want to criminalise a 14-year-old. But we asked them to talk to her and make it known how appalled we were.’
While in previous generations bullying might be confined within a school, thanks to social media victims now find their reputations can be trashed for months, even years, and to a much broader social circle.
Becky, who is herself the daughter of second-generation immigrants, had ventured an opinion in an impromptu classroom debate sparked by Black Lives Matter (BLM) in July 2021 and been instantly labelled a racist. File image
Certainly, the slurs, disseminated on social media, followed Becky everywhere. There was no escaping them. Even when Becky’s life became so unbearable that she was forced in February of this year to go to a new school, the ‘racist’ smear preceded her.
And just as she began to rebuild her shattered confidence — venturing into town on an outing with new friends — she was spotted by a gang of girls from her old school and beaten up again.
Andrea has also been embroiled in the ritual humiliation of her daughter. ‘I was with Becky in the shopping centre one day and a boy suddenly shouted, ‘Oh, look! There’s the racist!’ It was as if a floodlight had been turned on us. Horrible,’ she says.
Now Becky’s despairing parents are telling her story — under false names because they fear for their daughter’s safety — to warn others about the excesses of cancel culture and the devastating nature of modern bullying.
The ubiquity of smartphones and social media has ramped it up to unprecedented levels. A 2020 study in the Journal of Adolescent Health, for example, concluded that ‘accessibility to social media and its pervasive use has led to new opportunities for online aggression,’ and poses, ‘the strongest and most consistent risk,’ to young teenagers.
Becky’s parents certainly believe smartphones are the bullies’ ‘most potent weapon’ because they allow them to disseminate lies and smears to a wide audience.
A smartphone ban has now been implemented in their daughter’s old school, but Andrea and David are calling for a blanket prohibition in all schools. Had they been banned, they argue, Becky’s adversaries would never have been able to film and share her initial beating or foment the hatred they stirred up during school hours.
There is a searing irony at the heart of Becky’s story because her parents, both thoughtful, intelligent people, have raised their two daughters to be similarly caring. They characterise Becky as ‘gentle, polite and well-mannered’.
Becky’s parents certainly believe smartphones are the bullies’ ‘most potent weapon’ because they allow them to disseminate lies and smears to a wide audience. File image
Discussions at home centred on inclusivity and kindness. A quiet, unsporty teenager, Becky was, in fact, the least likely child to be accused of racism. Yet once the tag had been appended to her, it transmuted into fact — and Becky had nowhere to hide.
Andrea recalls how it all began with that innocent comment during an informal classroom debate about BLM.
‘Afterwards, Becky was cornered in the toilets, her bag was grabbed and her face was shoved under the hand drier. A boy told her she had been ‘cancelled’ for being racist.’
Quite simply, Becky instantly became a social pariah. Andrea immediately contacted the school and asked how Becky’s question had been dealt with — and how it could have sparked such an outpouring of bile. The maths teacher overseeing the class reported that she had briefly interrupted the lesson to talk about the impact of discrimination on different minority groups, but had not heard Becky’s comments.
However, the rumour mill gathered its own ghastly momentum. ‘Our daughter was not only being labelled a racist, but the lies escalated. We were horrified that she was accused of using the ‘N’ word,’ says David.
‘She was pushed and shoved in corridors. Pupils made gagging noises as she walked past. Her friends deserted her because they were worried that they’d be tarnished by the accusations she was facing. Ironically, her small friendship group comprised black and mixed-race girls. But they were scared of repercussions.’
The family’s hope that the approaching summer holidays would see an end to it was sadly misplaced.
‘As the term ended we could see Becky becoming more and more isolated and withdrawn,’ says David. ‘We hoped it would have died down by the time the new term began. But in fact she was only just starting to experience the full force of the backlash.’
In September 2021, in a queue for the Covid vaccination, a student told Becky: ‘I hope the vaccine kills you.’ By October, Becky had started to receive a string of texts and emails from anonymous accounts.
The torrent was sickening: ‘Racist little whore,’ ‘F*** you b***h,’ ‘F*** your Mama and your kids,’ ran a few of them.
‘They were really distressing, disgusting and vile — many of them are unrepeatable,’ says Andrea.
‘Around this time, too, Becky had a ball deliberately thrown at her head with great force in PE. And a photo of her, sitting alone, looking at her phone, was circulated on social media, with the tag ‘racist’.
‘She had started, by then, to become very withdrawn. She complained constantly of tummy aches because she didn’t want to go to school. We were insistent she went, but in hindsight we were wrong.
‘We reported every incident of bullying to the school, but it just made it worse for Becky . . . She’d become an outcast. She had absolutely no friends to talk to, befriend or protect her.’
At the start of November, Becky had a palpable sense of foreboding. ‘She told me she felt unsafe,’ says her mum. And so it proved when she was brutally attacked by the female pupil.
David says: ‘She was taking refuge in a toilet cubicle when some girls banged on the door and said if she didn’t come out they’d beat up her sister.
‘She was like a lamb to the slaughter. She came out and this particular girl, known for her violence, laid into Becky, punching and kicking her to the ground, pulling her hair out. She was known for posting videos of herself fighting other girls and her friends filmed the attack on Becky. The film of her being beaten up is still being circulated and there’s absolutely nothing we can do about it.’
The school expelled the girl and, says David, ‘there was one particular teacher who promised he would ‘do what it takes’ to sort out the problem’.
Some children were suspended, while others were reprimanded. He visited their homes and parents, and worked with the police. ‘But I said, ‘The genie is out of the bottle now and there is nothing we can do to stop Becky being taunted and harassed on social media.’
‘You have to ban smartphones on school premises because they are a huge part of the problem.’
After seeing a doctor and staying at home for two weeks’ rest after the beating, Becky returned to school. But her life was a shadow of it what had been.
‘She would arrive and leave five minutes early for lessons to avoid the taunting in corridors. She only attended core subject lessons and I’d drop her at school, collect her at lunchtimes and pick her up in the afternoon so she didn’t have to face the bullies,’ recalls David, now retired from his management job.
Both he and Andrea rail against the inequity of their daughter’s position: ‘It’s always the victims who have to change their behaviour, while the bullies get on with their lives.’
Meanwhile, the video of Becky’s beating was circulating widely in the town where she lived and beyond. ‘And the horror is, she just couldn’t escape it,’ says David. ‘By now her self-esteem was completely destroyed.
‘How much can a child of 14 take? Becky stopped talking to us. She said, ‘The more you try to help, the worse the grief I get.’ We were at our wits’ end. She was in such a fragile state.’
The solutions they considered were extreme. They thought about moving house, but there were no guarantees that the rumours wouldn’t follow her anyway.
David adds: ‘We considered renting and changing her name — but we didn’t see why she should lose her identity. She went for a trial at a private school but the cost was prohibitive.’
Finally, in February this year, Becky moved to another state school in the same town. ‘But on day one she was called a racist by pupils because videos of her had been circulated,’ recalls her dad.
‘However quiet and discreet she was, social media had unleashed its power. She was pushed and goaded. There were daily incidents. But the school dealt with them swiftly and robustly.’
By April, Becky had formed a couple of new friendships. It was a giant step forward for a child who had not socialised for almost a year.
‘She had a couple of little buddies and we were delighted,’ says David. ‘And for the first time in goodness knows how long, she decided to go shopping in town with them. We were on tenterhooks and we asked her to check in regularly, but the day went so well she decided to stay out longer than planned. We thought she’d turned a corner.’
Distressingly, it was not the case. ‘We got a call from Becky,’ recalls Andrea. ‘She was crying, inconsolable. She said, ‘I just knew this would happen.’ She’d bumped into the worst group of pupils from her old school.
‘They followed her from shop to shop. She and her friends tried to find sanctuary in one shop, but they were kicked out.
‘Then the bullies threw a drink over her. They started videoing the altercation, taunting her, hitting her until she fell to the ground, then picking up a bin and upending it on her head.
‘Fortunately, a police CCTV camera had recorded the assault. This time we wanted to press charges and the police interviewed the girls under caution. But they were juveniles. There weren’t prosecuted. They only got a formal caution.’
Their frustration that charges were not pursued is palpable, but Andrea and David are determined now to look to the future.
Since then, Becky’s new friendships have strengthened and her confidence is slowly returning. But her recovery is still slow and tentative.
‘She goes into town now, but we have a live location setting [on our phones] so we can see minute by minute where she is,’ explains Andrea. ‘We drop her there and pick her up.’
Becky is also undergoing counselling. ‘She is responding positively, but the trauma has sapped her self-esteem completely,’ says Andrea. ‘It is heart-breaking. For a year she wouldn’t even leave the house to go out and buy a pint of milk.
‘She has spent so long in a state of hypervigilance, we ask ourselves: ‘How long will this go on for? At what point do these bullies just leave her alone and give up?’
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