The bullying lasted all year: hitting, taunting, hand sanitizer smeared in the eyes, until finally Chris Eicherle had enough.
He marched to the corner of Ripley Road and waited for his stepsons school bus. When it stopped, he got on, introducing a busload of middle-schoolers to one righteously ticked-off dad.
First, he laid into the driver, calling him incompetent, promising to get him replaced.
Then he turned to the kids themselves, still standing in the bus doorway.
If anyone messes with Josh, he told them, theyll be dealing with me personally.
This fatherly gesture got Eicherle charged with a pair of misdemeanors: trespassing/impeding a bus and communicating threats. But he doesnt care. He shut the bullies down.
Its my responsibility to protect my children, said Eicherle, 35, and I will do whatever I have to do to keep him safe.
His stepson, Josh Hamilton, attends Overhills Middle School, not far from Fort Bragg in Harnett County. He was born prematurely and weighed only a pound, Eicherle said, and the heavy doses of steroids left him oversized. At age 12, Josh stands 5-foot-4 and weighs 220 pounds.
I told him, Going in the middle school and high school, youre going to get picked on, his stepdad said. If it gets too bad, just call an adult.
As a new middle-schooler, Josh had no trouble in class or the hallways. Only the school bus.
When Josh got punched, Eicherle says he went to Harnett County schools for help. Well take care of it, he recalls being told. He never heard anything more. (The school system hasnt called me back, so I cant tell you the administrations side.)
But in January, Josh came home to say the kids on the bus had a fight with hand sanitizer and that somebody came up behind him and rubbed it in his eyes. Eicherle says he filed a report with the Harnett County sheriff and talked to school resource officers. But nobody witnessed the assault, at least not on the record.
The lack of communication bothered him most.
Eicherle felt like he was following the right channels, playing by the rules, and nobody ever explained what was happening beyond saying, Well take care of it. He didnt find out until after his arrest that some of the students on the bus had been suspended from school. But even after being punished, those students came back, and the bullying continued.
So he decided to stop it himself. Eicherle is a big man: 6-foot-4 and more than 300 pounds. Not to mention the tattoos and lip studs. But I have a feeling those kids were so startled that they would have sat at attention even if Eicherle were a foot shorter in a suit and tie.
Weve had no problems since I stepped on that bus, he said. Josh was glad to see somebody actually stand up for him.
Bullying: It's personal
All of this registers somewhere around my solar plexus.
I spent all of the ninth grade and part of the 10th being tormented by kids on the school bus. I was tall and gawky, carried a trombone case and spent most of the rides reading by myself. A buffet line for bullies.
The bus driver was usually half-awake. You could sit wherever you wanted. You could smoke pot. You could throw things out the window. You could call people names involving unnatural acts with animals. On the bus, especially on a long rural route like mine, idiots rule.
But my father fixed my problem. He didnt step foot on the bus. He told me to walk up to whatever kid I chose, tell him I wouldnt fight him on school property because I had too much to lose, but if hed come to my house at noon on Sunday Id beat the crap out of him.
This would make me look tough, my dad assured me, and the bully would never have the guts to show up.
Imagine my surprise when one of them came knocking that Sunday, and Dad just said, Go kick his (behind).
One bloody nose and busted knuckle later, I was shaking hands with him, making a bus riders truce.
Maybe next time a bullying situation arises, somebody on Harnett Countys payroll will climb on board the bus and enforce such a peace.
Then Eicherle and I wont have to do it ourselves.
Josh Shaffer is a local columnist for the News and Observer in Raleigh.