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Lexington School District One administrators and staff meet with parents and students to address bul

Gilbert, SC – Senior School District One officials, including Superintendent Greg Little, met with more than 100 parents, students, and other interested parties to discuss what some perceive as a bullying problem at Gilbert area schools last week. The meeting, which lasted several hours, was moved from a professional development room to the school’s theater after it was apparent that the crowd would exceed the scheduled room’s capacity.

The meeting was requested by the community after several former students of the area’s schools committed suicide recently. School board member Grady Harmon was instrumental in helping to organize the meeting after he was contacted by the community with their concerns for the safety and wellbeing of the students. Some of those who requested the meeting were the families of children who have said they were bullied, intimidated, and harassed at school. These families, along with some other vocal members of the community, say that the schools and their staff have not responded quickly or in a comprehensive manner that solved the problems their students had.

In opening the meeting, Dr. Little made it very clear that he wanted to have an opportunity to let his staff explain what policies the district already has in place. Then he promised that he would break the meeting into small groups and allow those present to interact one on one with the staff and administrators so that they could hear the ideas, complaints, and grievances of the crowd and together they could work toward improving the way the sprawling district handles bullying. Throughout the meeting, he pointedly reminded those who helped run the meeting that he intended to provide that time for public interaction and was intent on doing what he had said, listening to the public, a key part of what went on Monday night.

Mr. Jeff Caldwell, the district’s director of student services, first went over the policy the district currently has in place. His portion of the presentation was an abbreviated version of the training that he does regularly with the district’s employees that come in contact with students.

Much of the guidelines, including the definitions of harassment, intimidation, and bullying are defined by state and federal laws that are out of the district’s control, according to Caldwell. In many cases, the federal and state government dictate portions of the response to these problems that take away much of the leeway that might be better afforded to return to a local level.

One of Caldwell’s key points was that there is distinct difference between conflict and bullying. In the case of conflict, two students may have an issue that could be as simple as a verbal conflict (argument or harsh words) to an actual physical altercation or fight. These do occur, but both students and faculty receive conflict resolution training from a very early age and that training is reinforced regularly. When necessary, the district’s discipline policy is applied.

Bullying, by definition, has four key parts that are clearly spelled out in the district’s policy. First and foremost, it is defined as unwanted, mean behavior among the children that involves one making the other feel as if the bully has a real or perceived power over the other. The word perceived is important here because the power may not be real or actually present. If the student who is being bullied believes that the aggressor has the power because of something he is doing, either physical or emotional, then that is bullying behavior.

The definition also clearly states that bullying behavior must be repetitive or happen again and again. A onetime instance is still serious, but may be better defined as conflict and not bullying.

Second, bullying behavior must be intended to harm the victim. This doesn’t have to be physical harm. If the bully wants to harm another child’s social standing or his or her perception of whom he is as a person that would also meet the requirements of this part of the definition.

Third, for bullying to be taking place there must be that imbalance of power between the bully and the victim. Again, this doesn’t have to be physical in nature. If the victim believes that the bully holds social or emotional power over the child being bullied, this portion of the definition would be met.

Last, if the bully gains control over his or her victim, then that would fit into the definition of bullying. If three of these four definitions are met, then bullying is present and the district’s policy regarding how that offense is handled, comes into play.

This actual definition is so important because it determines whether bullying is actually taking place. It also helps decide what corrective actions or discipline needs to take place. The district’s reaction to the presence of bullying may be as little as an admonishment, basically telling the bully, “You don’t need to do that again,” to expulsion and many corrective acts in between. The penalties and disciplinary actions are also clearly laid out in the district’s policy.

The district’s staff that was present during the meeting, including the principals of each of the Gilbert area schools, had an opportunity to address their school’s response within the guidelines of the district’s strict guidelines. Grade levels and students’ ages often dictate what level of instructions children receive regarding the bullying policy. In some of the earliest grades, very young children are instructed in the difference between tattling and telling. As children get older, more serious offenses might eventually get to a point where law enforcement may need to be involved. The upper grade schools all have SROs or School Resource Officers who can be involved if a case of bullying progresses to a point that begins to be criminal. This might be the case when a student physically attacks or assaults another child.

All of the administrators also stressed the importance of feedback on how they were doing in regard to their bullying response. They all agreed that they try to check on the result of their actions once bullying is detected and reported; but also admitted that true change is difficult if no one ever tells them if what they have done is working or if further action is needed.

After the formal presentation by the staff, some of the questions that were pre-submitted by the community were posed to the panel of district faculty members. They took turns fielding those questions and did their best to answer these fully. Dr. Little was careful to hold those questions to a minimum because he clearly wanted to allow the citizens the opportunity to publicly interact with the administration and ask questions and provide one-on-one feedback in the smaller groups.

About an hour into the meeting, the meeting broke up and everyone moved into the commons area of the school. Each staff member selected an area where he could surround himself with the parents and students that had questions, comments, concerns, and suggestions. Copies of the district’s policy and guidelines on bullying were made available to everyone who wanted one and the less formal session began.

As I moved from table to table, I heard people voice their concerns about what they see as holes and shortcomings in the district’s response to bullying. Faculty members were making notes and discussed these openly in a non-defensive manner with the public. It seemed clear that the faculty had taken Little seriously and were intent on making any changes that were identified and deemed necessary. Most of the parents seemed genuinely concerned with making a positive change and helping the district do a better job. Likewise, the district’s staff seemed intent on listening and learning from the comments.

Parents told me that one of the most common shortcomings of the policy was that all faculty and staff members did not respond to bullying in the same manner or consistently follow the district’s policy to the letter. Often they felt teachers, especially teachers with long tenures who started their careers many years ago, felt that minor bullying behavior did not warrant getting a child in real or serious trouble. Some said that these faculty members look at a bully as a child with a Type A or assertive personality that marked that student as a future leader, company CEO, or a great future commanding general on some distant battlefield, not some bad kid that used intimidation to control and demean others.

Another shortcoming that was pointed out several times was with support staff and substitute teachers.

Parents said that the substitutes, some of whom have a minimum amount of training, don’t appear to be well versed in the policies and procedures that need to be followed when bullying is suspected or identified. In some cases, substitutes can be in the same classroom for weeks and have little of the core training that a certified teacher has in dealing with modern students that have complex social problems.

Several students who were in attendance at the meeting said that a school faculty’s investigation into bullying can often times fall short because the bully simply lies and is smart enough not to leave a trail of paperwork or electronic evidence or misbehave in front of witnesses that can be used to prove the allegations of bullying. They also pointed out that other students will deny they’ve witnessed bullying because of fear that they will be targeted next or that they will lose social standing at school. These students feel they will be ostracized, separated from the popular group, or be labelled a snitch or a tattle-tail.

Even though many of the schools in District One now have sophisticated electronic surveillance systems in many common areas that can used when investigating bullying, the students and parents pointed out that certain hallways, outdoor commons areas, and restrooms lack these devices because of student privacy concerns. One parent told me after requesting anonymity, “These kids aren’t stupid. They know who to target and where they can get away with bullying a child without being detected.”

One 8th grade boy who is a student at Gilbert Middle School said he felt he didn’t get relief from the faculty at the school and eventually took matters into his own hands. During the introductory phase of the meeting, he spoke to the assembled crowd and said only after he physically fought back, punching the bully, did the bullying he experienced stop.

I asked him after the meeting broke up if he had followed the procedure as set forth in the district’s policy. He said he didn’t know if he had but he was glad he had knocked his aggressor down physically, even if it meant he had been disciplined by the school’s administration himself. In his own words Clay said, “The three day suspension was worth it because now I get respect that I didn’t before I hit him.”

Debbie Spires, a grieving grandmother whose granddaughter took her own life in December of last year, walked around during the meeting with a poster in tribute to her granddaughter Morgan Spires. Spires was orderly and only explained the meaning of a poster she carried adorned with pictures of the dead teen if she was asked what its purpose was.

Spires explained to me that her granddaughter, pictured on the poster, had been the subject of another student bully at Gilbert. Her bully had worked to cut her out of a social group of friends and made her feel alone and abandoned. She was also made to feel as if she were worthless and targeted. This is a common way for girls to bully one another, according to district officials who spoke at the meeting.

Eventually, the granddaughter was moved to Pelion schools for a new beginning, but never fully recovered from her victimization at Gilbert. Spires said, “Her wounds never healed, and eventually it was those emotional scars that we think made her shoot herself.” She went on to say that the district could have done more. “This shouldn’t have happened and I feel that if the district would have reacted more forcefully, and swiftly, Morgan would still be with us today. If we can prevent this from happening to another child again, then any action we take will have been worth it,” Spires concluded.

After the meeting, a small group of adults, along with their teenaged children who were students, stopped me as I left the building. They said that for the most part, they didn’t believe that the district was serious about the problem and it was just another issue that the faculty had to bother with. On woman, who identified herself only as an angry mamma, said that she thought that the school district lied to cover up its own shortcomings and inaction. “The school hides behind excuses by saying they can’t video in certain areas because of privacy laws. They claim that they can’t say how a child was disciplined after bullying because that bad child has a right to privacy. They claim that teachers aren’t watching intently as classes change and students move about the campus. Most of that is bull!” She went on to say that there is inadequate adult supervision, teachers and staff are focused on electronics, checking their own personal social media accounts, or even socializing with students and each other when they should be monitoring the student body more closely. “It is the school’s fault that these kids are being harassed or bullied and the only solution is for the district to do more to hold the adults accountable for what goes on at those schools.”

Several of the principals in attendance did say repeatedly that they asked their teachers and staff often to be in two places at once. They ask that they monitor the classrooms during period changes, but also require that they watch their portion of the hallways. “Between these challenges and the staff dealing with massive amounts of communications in person and electronically, the staff is very busy and that can be challenging,” one administrator said.

For his part as the leader of the massive school system, Dr. Little made it clear that he would do everything in his power to make changes where they are needed. “It is our #1 priority to provide for the safety and security of every student that walks through our doors. Every child should be able to reach his full potential without fear,” he concluded.

Little also implored students, parents, and their loved ones to stand up for what’s right. “Tell an adult,” Little said a number of times during the session. “We are here for you but we can’t help if we don’t know what’s happening,” he said.

He also stressed how extremely important it is for other students to report bullying and other bad behavior when they see it. “Someone usually has seen something,” Little said. “It is very important that you each become involved and support each other by standing up for what is right. A bully has no power when met with a force of others ready and willing to do the right thing by supporting one another.”

Last Thursday, Little appeared on The Ledger’s morning program Good Morning Lexington County. He revealed that meetings had already been scheduled in Gilbert with students and staff to beginning the process of sorting through the information that came out of the meeting last week. “One of the things that I am excited about is a means by which students can text in tips about bullying and harassment,” Little said during the interview. “We feel students will be more apt to report things they see are wrong by text than any other way.”

The district’s website has all of its policies and procedures available on-line for anyone to review. You can specifically find the policy on dealing with bullying at the district’s website by going to http://www.lexington1.net. From here look under the ABOUT tab and click over to school board policies.

Then you can scroll over to Students policy JICFAA.

The district also provides a page of resource links for most problems facing children today including bullying, substance abuse problems, and physical and emotional abuse. That can be found by clicking http://www.lexington1.net/Default.aspx?PageID=20966252&A=SearchResult&SearchID=3746669&ObjectID=20966252&ObjectType=1.

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