By Shannon Rapose
Kern Valley Sun
All children face conflict as they progress through childhood, at one point or another. Unfortunately, teasing and disagreements are often part of growing up. But when does teasing or “innocent banter” cross over into something more harmful?
Bullying takes on many forms such as verbal (making threats, name-calling), psychological (excluding children, spreading rumors), or physical (hitting, pushing, taking a child’s possessions). According to a 2014 report by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, one in four students reported being bullied and one in five admitted to being a bully or bullying someone. While most incidents will be resolved without major incident, repetitive bullying can leave lasting effects on a child’s life or result in dire consequences. Unfortunately, no school or community is immune to bullying, and the Kern River Valley is no exception.
On Sunday, Oct. 15, a group of parents and concerned community members gathered at Tank Park in Lake Isabella to discuss events that have taken place at Wallace Elementary and Wallace Middle School. Overall, the group felt that the bullying incidents, both verbal and physical, have escalated at both campuses for the past few years, especially since the first day of school this year.
Multiple parents stated that their children have been verbally harassed by fellow students, as well as school staff, on a daily basis. One parent reported that their elementary school student is called racial slurs and is relentlessly teased about their physical appearance to the point that they “didn’t want to live anymore.” Another parent stated that their petite 12 year old daughter comes home crying every day from the verbal abuse she suffers over her haircut; having her sexual orientation questioned, called derogatory names and was being threatened with physical violence after she sought help.
Parents also discussed some serious physical attacks that have taken place at the school. One parent stated that three Wallace Elementary students have been reportedly stabbed with a pencil; one in the hand, one in the chest, and another in the face. In a separate incident, another elementary student was choked so violently that they required medical aid due to the severity of their injuries, returning to school with a neck brace and symptoms of a concussion.
“I have been to school board meetings, met with the principal, the superintendent and teachers multiple times. Unfortunately, it doesn’t ever seem to get anywhere,” said one Wallace Elementary parent, whose child witnessed another student physically abusing a special needs student at the school, but when their child tried to intervene, they, too, were attacked by the aggressor. “I feel like the school is in crisis at this point, and it’s the worst it’s ever been.”
In response to the recent outcry from parents and the community, Wallace Elementary School Principal Brian Polston and Superintendent Robin Shive hosted a community meeting on Tuesday, Oct. 17, in the Wallace Multipurpose Room in hopes of establishing a line of communication and listening to suggestions that would lead to positive and proactive solutions. For an hour, Polston mediated while Shive wrote down all the ideas on how to make the school a more positive and safe environment for its students.
“It’s very important that we have constructive conversations that are going to help us get to solutions,” said Polston. “We all want to see real change that will benefit our students and make our school a safer place.” Polston also stated that he was happy with how the meeting went and, hopefully, now everyone can come together and move forward.
Some were not as confident. When asked what they thought about the community meeting, one parent said they lacked confidence in the school’s ability to implement change fast enough and didn’t feel officials are taking the parent’s concerns and proposed solutions seriously. Another parent felt that the meeting was a “good start,” however, they were saddened that the incidents at the schools had reached this point and felt the schools have fallen behind in addressing the issues that make it a difficult place for its students to learn and teachers to teach.
When asked if she thought bullying was worse than it was in previous years, Wallace Middle School Principal Jill Shaw stated that the physical incidents of bullying have not increased, and that the most common form of bullying that the school sees on a daily basis is verbal.
“There is bullying; there will always be bullying,” said Shaw.
Shaw further elaborated that cyber-bullying has become more prevalent in recent years with social media outlets, such as Facebook and SnapChat, allowing for little accountability.
“It spills over into school time because kids and parents are upset over what’s being posted,” said Shaw. “We have spent increasing amounts of time in the past three years working with kids and parents involved in this issue.”
Both Polston and Shaw expressed that changes have been in motion and both schools are trying to implement programs that will change the school, and hopefully the community, for the better. However, they did stress that it is going to take time to see results.
The elementary school recently adapted the “Leader in Me” program into its curriculum, whereas the middle school has had its own full-time behavior specialist on staff to help with the student’s social and emotional needs for the past three years. Shaw and the new middle school behavioral specialist, Virginia Long, recently completed a three day training course on restorative practices, which she hopes to spread the knowledge and practices out to teachers and other staff.
“Virginia has already begun using restorative circles with groups of kids,” said Shaw. “It’s an evidence based practice that helps students own their behavior and, therefore, change their own behavior.” Shaw also stated that she hopes to revive the Safe Schools Ambassadors program, which is an “inside-out” approach to improving a school’s environment by empowering students to resolve their conflicts in a healthy and positive way.
Overall, both Wallace Elementary and Wallace Middle School are hoping to impose greater change amongst its students, rather than just punish or expel individual students. There are also many aspects to consider when finding an appropriate consequence to any given situation, and schools are required to address these consequences before resorting to suspension or expulsion.
The Wallace Middle School Behavior Specialist, Virginia Long, emphasized that most of the time conflicts at school stem from conflicts at home. She also mentioned that because of the small community atmosphere where most know one another or are related in some way, she has seen many situations arise from issues between families, and their children bring them to school.
“That is very typical of here that I have not seen in all my years being at other districts,” said Long. She feels that this is very much a community issue and not just a school issue.
As a follow-up, the Wallace Elementary school intends to compile a report and present it at another community meeting on Tuesday, Nov. 7, at 3 p.m. in the Wallace Cafeteria.
“There are some things that we need to get in place right now and we are in the triage point of the crisis, but that isn’t going to take care of things in the long run,” said Polston. “What you see right now, today…if you come back in three years, I believe you are going to see a completely different culture in our school and in our community.”