The answer depends on the definition of bullying. Several parents have raised concerns at school board meetings throughout the year. However, administrators say that the cases in question, while a problem, don’t necessarily qualify as bullying.
At a Dillingham City School District board meeting in May, Aleta Evans spoke during the public comment period.
“My child has been bullied since the third grade. Kids shouldn’t be afraid to go to school.”
Evans relayed her son’s recent experience in a conversation after the meeting.
“This one kid kept calling him names, kept telling him he’s a coward,” she said. “Constantly he had to battle with this every single day. It got to the point where this one child had a butterfly knife in school. So, I had to go to the school and talk to the principal about this. It was getting out of hand.”
According to Evans, the child didn’t do anything with the knife, and the school dealt with the situation appropriately. Still, she is concerned about what she sees as a bullying problem in the school.
Other parents have voiced concerns about the school’s response to bullying at numerous school board meetings this year, calling it inadequate. However, many incidents don’t meet the elementary school’s definition of bullying. Two years ago, DES implemented the Second Step curriculum – a framework meant to help students and teachers address bullying. Principal Nick Schollmeier explained that for the school to label a behavior as bullying, it must contain five elements: Unfair, one-sided, repeated, deliberate, and lack of option (the victim can’t get away without getting help).
“If you look at those five components from Second Step, I don’t think we have a bullying problem at the elementary school, but we have had other problems. I don’t want to downplay those problems, because some of those problems were pretty serious,” said Schollmeier.
He said a clear definition avoids confusing bullying with other behaviors.
“We had two kids fight this year. As we got to the bottom of it, talked to both kids, talked to all parties involved, talked to witnesses, we were calling parents. Both parents had said, ‘This kid is bullying my kid.’ It’s not one-sided. So, we said, well, both kids were mean to each other but that’s not necessarily bullying.”
Outgoing school superintendent Glen Szymoniak said the Second Step definition of bullying is fairly common. But he says that it’s crucial for all parties to get on the same page.
“For one faction to say there is a problem and another one to say there’s not a problem – well guess what? That’s a problem. That’s the problem right there. As long as we argue about the problem, it’s not getting solved.”
The lack of consensus on what qualifies as bullying is one factor in the frustrations of parents and the administration. Schollmeier said that neither he nor the school have effectively informed parents about their definition of bullying.
“That’s kind of the part where we’ve maybe failed, essentially,” Schollmeier said. “I think we’re doing a good job teaching students what bullying is and how to deal with it. I think we’ve done a good job giving the teachers the tools to work through some of those problems with students and be aware of that and be proactive. And I think now we need to make sure we’re informing parents and teaching parents what we’re considering bullying is and what we’re considering just a behavior incident.”
To complicate matters further, according to Szymoniak, parents often voice their complaints to the school board orally but don’t submit them in writing. The school board needs a complaint submitted in writing in order to act.
“It really handcuffs me when it’s all verbal, because I have nothing to go on until somebody writes it down,” Szymoniak said. “And then the person who writes it down gets held accountable for being honest and accurate as well – you can’t make things up. If I start accusing people of doing stuff without having it in writing, now I’m violating due process. These systems are set up to protect everyone’s rights and responsibilities. Failing to do those things really prevents quality administration.”
Principal Schollmeier says that parents have come to the school with concerns – and brought suggestions.
“If there is a concern, it’s always nice as an administrator to know about it beforehand. If we don’t know about it until the school board meeting, it’s tough to do something about it. I think the staff, Mr. Tweet and myself try to get to the bottom of it fairly quickly and get kids so they want to come to school and they feel safe. There was a handful of parents who came in and expressed their concerns but then they also expressed some suggestions on how to fix or eliminate the problem. And that to me is fantastic, because as a school we don’t have all the answers,” Schollmeier said.
Evans, the mother who spoke at the school board meetings, said that she approached the principal when her son was having trouble, and was satisfied with the response.
“He dealt with the issue right away,” she said. “Everything went smoothly. I think the teachers here are doing a really good job trying to make sure everyone’s doing fine, but you can’t always keep track of what goes on in a classroom.”
Evans voiced her concerns at the school board meeting because she wanted the board and the public to know what was happening in the community.
“This has gotten out of hand, and other parents have gone there and complained about their child getting bullied, too," she said. "They’ve got to do something else. The school board, or the school needs to do something about these children getting bullied, or the kids that bully these children. They need to find ways to help them.”
Looking to the fall, Schollmeier said the school will organize meetings between teachers, parents and the administration to discuss bullying.
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