Bul­ly­ing eyed at Beau­fort County schools

The Beaufort Gazette (Sunday) - - Front Page - BY MAG­GIE ANGST mangst@is­land­packet.com

Ev­ery day of school last year, Lindsey Bat­tle’s son came home and begged her not to make him go back.

Tammy Chisolm’s daugh­ter com­plained con­stantly that she hated her life and wished she were dead.

“It was dev­as­tat­ing,” said Chisolm, who lives in Bluffton. “It made me sick to my stom­ach.”

Bat­tle said she was heart­bro­ken by what her son has gone through.

“I was at a loss as for what I could to do to help him,” the Beau­fort mom said. “I re­ally just felt help­less.”

Bat­tle and Chisolm say their chil­dren were bul­lied by class­mates phys­i­cally and emo­tion­ally for months on end — and both say that telling the Beau­fort County School District was

akin to shout­ing into the void.

Dur­ing the past five years, data re­ported by the district shows bul­ly­ing in­ci­dents among Beau­fort County stu­dents have plum­meted — drop­ping al­most 95 per­cent after for­mer su­per­in­ten­dent Jeff Moss’ first year with the district.

Yet in­ter­views with a hand­ful of par­ents, as well as re­cent re­ports from the Beau­fort County Sher­iff’s Of­fice and law­suits filed against the district, tell a dif­fer­ent story, rais­ing ques­tions about whether the district has been down­play­ing the is­sue.

Na­tion­ally, 21 per­cent of stu­dents re­port be­ing bul­lied at school.

In Beau­fort County, that num­ber stands at less than 4 per­cent, ac­cord­ing to district data.

The district’s low bul­ly­ing rate could in­di­cate that the ad­min­is­tra­tion’s anti-bul­ly­ing ini­tia­tives are ex­cep­tional and have been pro­duc­ing sig­nif­i­cantly high­erthan-av­er­age results.

It could also in­di­cate that some bul­ly­ing in­ci­dents have been go­ing un­re­ported by the district.

Ei­ther way, district ad­min­is­tra­tors said re­cently that they ex­pect the num­ber of re­ported bul­ly­ing in­ci­dents to in­crease start­ing with this school year.

They say soft­ware and “com­mu­ni­ca­tion” is­sues have been partly to blame for the lower num­ber, and that there is no cor­re­la­tion be­tween the num­bers drop­ping and Moss’ ten­ure with the district.

Moss, who has been ac­cused by board mem­bers over the years of with­hold­ing data that could re­flect poorly on him or the district, left the district in Au­gust after five years.

Jim Foster, spokesper­son for the school district, said that Moss could not have in­flu­enced the re­port­ing of data be­cause “the su­per­in­ten­dent doesn’t re­port the data; in­di­vid­ual schools do.”

Based on Bat­tle’s ex­pe­ri­ence and what she’s heard from other par­ents, she said the district’s di­min­ish­ing bul­ly­ing num­bers are “shock­ing.”

“To me, what I kept feel­ing like last year was that the ad­min­is­tra­tion at the school kept try­ing to sweep it un­der the rug,” Bat­tle said.

DOES BUL­LY­ING GET DOWN­PLAYED?

Bat­tle said her son, who was in third grade at Robert Smalls In­ter­na­tional Academy last year, was ganged up on by his fel­low stu­dents al­most daily. He was picked on for his ap­pear­ance, slapped, tripped and told by class­mates that they would “take all his friends away from him.”

Bat­tle said she went to mul­ti­ple meet­ings with ad­min­is­tra­tors, her son met weekly with the school coun­selor and she ad­vo­cated for her son to be moved to a new class­room — to no avail.

“They were do­ing any­thing they could to keep me quiet but it kept on hap­pen­ing ... There was never a solution for the root of the prob­lem,” she said in a re­cent in­ter­view.

Dur­ing this time, her son’s straight-A grades started to drop, and his out­look to­ward school took a con­cern­ing turn.

When ad­min­is­tra­tors de­cided to take her son out of class each week to see a school coun­selor, Bat­tle felt like they were fo­cus­ing on the wrong child.

“I felt like they were sin­gling him out by telling him to ig­nore it and stand up for him­self when it was re­ally the other stu­dents who needed the dis­ci­pline,” she said.

After months, Bat­tle saw lit­tle im­prove­ment.

In Fe­bru­ary 2017, she re­ceived a phone call from the school nurse who told her that her son had been tripped by a fel­low stu­dent on the play­ground and had scraped both of his knees and el­bows.

Ac­cord­ing to Bat­tle, that was the last straw.

She filed a po­lice re­port with the Beau­fort County Sher­iff’s Of­fice and with­drew her son from the school.

Bat­tle was not the only one who felt the district poorly han­dled the bul­ly­ing of their child.

Chisolm said her daugh­ter, who was a third-grader at Bluffton El­e­men­tary school last year, was touched in­ap­pro­pri­ately by class­mates on two sep­a­rate oc­ca­sions. After her daugh­ter told her teacher, the bul­ly­ing from her class­mates got worse — specif­i­cally tar­get­ing her for her race, Chisolm said.

“She has al­ways been proud of who she is and her color, but that was the first time she’d ever been em­bar­rassed to be black or mixed,” Chisolm said.

Chisolm, who be­lieved the bul­lies were not prop­erly dis­ci­plined, said in a re­cent in­ter­view that her daugh­ter was “put through emo­tional hell” and that ad­min­is­tra­tors left her to “fend for her­self.”

“They (school staff) just never did any­thing about it other than talk to a kid,” Chisolm said. “But you can only talk to a kid so many times. If they don’t re­spond the first time, they’re not go­ing to re­spond the sec­ond time.”

When the school year ended and the bul­lies moved their at­tacks on­line, Chisolm de­cided to move her daugh­ter to a dif- fer­ent school in the district.

“I’m just now get­ting her sta­bi­lized again,” she said in a re­cent in­ter­view.

Foster, the district’s spokesper­son, said he is re­stricted by fed­eral pri­vacy laws from com­ment­ing on spe­cific stu­dent’s cases, but that bul­ly­ing is “sim­ply not some­thing we ig­nore.”

Foster said the district al­ways has two goals when it comes to bul­ly­ing — to make sure stu­dents feel safe and se­cure in schools at all times and in events of bul­ly­ing, to in­ter­vene, de­ter­mine why it oc­curred and cre­ate plans and dis­ci­plinary ac­tions aimed at im­prov­ing a bully’s be­hav­ior.

WHERE IS BEAU­FORT COUNTY’S BUL­LY­ING DATA?

Ac­cord­ing to S.C. Depart­ment of Ed­u­ca­tion data, bul­ly­ing in the district de­clined by 18 per­cent be­tween the 2013-14 and 2016-17 school years, which is the most re­cent data avail­able.

Com­par­a­tively, data sub­mit­ted to the U.S. Depart­ment of Ed­u­ca­tion’s Of­fice of Civil Rights in­di­cated that bul­ly­ing in the Beau­fort County School District de­clined by 95 per­cent be­tween the 2009-10 and 201314 school years.

The Of­fice of Civil Rights col­lects its data ev­ery other school year through a fed­er­ally man­dated sur­vey, and more than 99 per­cent of schools com­ply with the re­port­ing, ac­cord­ing to the U.S. Depart­ment of Ed­u­ca­tion

Beau­fort County, how­ever, did not not sub­mit any of its data on ha­rass­ment or bul­ly­ing for the 2015-16 school year, ac­cord­ing to data that was re­leased in April.

Daniel Fal­lon, the district’s direc­tor of data ser­vices, said a new soft­ware sys­tem was to blame.

Un­like the S.C. Depart­ment of Ed­u­ca­tion, which merely col­lects to­tal bul­ly­ing in­ci­dents, the Of­fice of Civil Rights re­quires its data to be bro­ken down into bul­ly­ing based on sex, sex­ual ori­en­ta­tion, race, re­li­gion and dis­abil­ity.

In the 2014-15 school year, the Beau­fort County School District be­gan us­ing a new elec­tronic re­fer­ral sys­tem, which was not set up to al­low teach­ers to ex­plain the rea­son for a cer­tain bul­ly­ing in­ci­dent, ac­cord­ing to Fal­lon.

The sys­tem has since been up­dated, al­low­ing for com­pli­ance in the fu­ture, he said.

Still, even when the district did sub­mit its bul­ly­ing data in pre­vi­ous years, the num­bers were quizzi­cally low.

Dur­ing the 2013-14 school year, only six bul­ly­ing in­ci­dents were re­ported across the en­tire 22,000-stu­dent district, and 91 per­cent of the district’s schools did not re­port a sin­gle bul­ly­ing in­ci­dent.

Prior to that, the school district re­ported 93 in­ci­dents dur­ing the 2011-2012 school year and 117 in­ci­dents dur­ing the 2009-2010 school year.

Ad­min­is­tra­tors could pro­vide lit­tle ex­pla­na­tion for the sig­nif­i­cant drop, say­ing no district staff mem­bers who worked on the data col­lec­tions prior to 2015-16 are still with the district.

Foster said that up un­til last year, one district of­fice col­lected the bul­ly­ing data and an­other of­fice re­ported the data but now it’s done un­der the same depart­ment.

“There may have been some com­mu­ni­ca­tion is­sues be­tween those of­fices. It’s just kind of hard to say,” he said.

Foster de­clined to say which district em­ploy­ees were pre­vi­ously re­spon­si­ble for col­lect­ing and re­port­ing bul­ly­ing data.

Data sub­mit­ted to the S.C. Depart­ment of Ed­u­ca­tion paints a sim­i­larly op­ti­mistic pic­ture about bul­ly­ing within the school district.

Dur­ing the 2015-16 school year, when the district said it could not re­port its data to the Of­fice of Civil Rights, the district re­ported 60 in­ci­dents of bul­ly­ing and one in­ci­dent of cy­ber­bul­ly­ing — a 37 per­cent drop from the two years be­fore that.

In 2016-17, bul­ly­ing in­creased slightly across the district to 78 in­ci­dents, but the county’s statis­tic still re­mained lower than most dis­tricts in the state of sim­i­lar size.

For ex­am­ple, the Greenville School District re­ported 459 in­ci­dents, the Charles­ton School District re­ported 183 and Aiken County re­ported 137 in­ci­dents.

A 2016 re­port from the Na­tional Academies of Sciences, En­gi­neer­ing and Medicine called bul­ly­ing a “se­ri­ous pub­lic health is­sue” in need of more de­tailed and con­sis­tent data col­lec­tion.

Dr. Fred Ri­vara, a pro­fes­sor of pe­di­atrics at the Univer­sity of Washington and chair­man of the com­mit­tee that com­piled the re­port, said col­lect­ing con­sis­tent data is cru­cial to help­ing ad­min­is­tra­tors, prin­ci­pals and teach­ers un­der­stand how preva­lent bul­ly­ing is.

“When­ever you want to try to deal with a prob­lem, you have to col­lect data to gauge how big a prob­lem you have and if you do an in­ter­ven­tion, (to gauge) if it is get­ting bet­ter,” Ri­vara said.

When asked what he thought about Beau­fort County’s 3.5 per­cent bul­ly­ing rate, Ri­vara said “it may be that the school district is do­ing the right stuff.

“… Hope­fully that’s the rea­son the rates are low.”

‘A RE­PEATED, TAR­GETED IN­CI­DENT’

When a bul­ly­ing in­ci­dent is re­ported within the district, ei­ther in-per­son or through the See Some­thing Say Some­thing app in­stalled on stu­dent tablets, school ad­min­is­tra­tors in­ves­ti­gate the al­le­ga­tion and han­dle it based on the stu­dent code of con­duct, ac­cord­ing to Lakin­sha Swin­ton, the district’s direc­tor of stu­dent ser­vices.

More than 1,000 tips were sent through the See Some­thing Say Some­thing app dur­ing the 201718 school year, ac­cord­ing to the district. Those tips could in­clude a wide range of is­sues such as bul­ly­ing al­le­ga­tions, school threats and other mat­ters that could in­volve law en­force­ment.

An ad­min­is­tra­tor’s first step is to de­ter­mine if an in­ci­dent is cred­i­ble and fits the def­i­ni­tion of bul­ly­ing, Swin­ton said.

“If it’s re­peated, if it’s ha­rass­ing in na­ture and if it’s tar­geted at a spe­cific stu­dent, then it be­comes a bul­ly­ing sit­u­a­tion,” she said. “A sin­gle in­ci­dent like a fight would not be a bul­ly­ing in­ci­dent or a sin­gle rude com­ment would not be bul­ly­ing.”

Swin­ton said the district is work­ing to in­crease bul­ly­ing ed­u­ca­tion for stu­dents and there­fore ex­pects the sta­tis­tics to rise.

“The ex­pec­ta­tion is that the more ed­u­ca­tion you pro­vide to th­ese stu­dents, the more that they feel em­pow­ered,” she said.

Through­out the last three and a half years, the district has been sued at least four times re­gard­ing its han­dling of ha­rass­ment and bul­ly­ing in­ci­dents, ac­cord­ing to on­line court records.

Two of the four cases, which were filed in the past two months, are still pend­ing.

One case was set­tled for $6,000 in Au­gust 2016 after a 14-year-old Beau­fort Mid­dle School stu­dent was bul­lied and in­jured by a peer at school.

An­other case was set­tled in March 2015 for an undis­closed amount. On­line court records in­di­cate a Bat­tery Creek High School stu­dent and foot­ball player was bul­lied, hazed and as­saulted in the school’s locker room.

As for Bat­tle’s son, he is at­tend­ing fourth grade at a dif­fer­ent school within the district. Al­though it took time and ad­just­ment, his grades are im­prov­ing again and he is no longer ex­pe­ri­enc­ing ha­rass­ment from his peers, she said.

After what Bat­tle calls a “big stress­ful or­deal” for her son and fam­ily, she said she hopes the district im­proves the way it treats and han­dles in­ci­dents and vic­tims of bul­ly­ing.

“The county needs to ad­dress this rather than con­stantly sweep­ing it un­der the rug,” she said. “There are no real con­se­quences for the stu­dents who are do­ing the bul­ly­ing.”

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