The first signs of trouble at Kopachuck Middle School surfaced during second lunch on Thursday, Feb. 2, 2012.
School counselor Betsy Ramsey heard a student say there had been “a pileup” in John Rosi’s class that morning, and some students had recorded the incident.
At third lunch, Ramsey spotted a group of students looking at video on a kid’s phone and laughing.
What Ramsey saw was alarming – a chaotic scene of students holding a smaller boy by his arms and legs, and Rosi, the teacher, sitting nearby with his feet up, doing nothing about it.
Ramsey confiscated the phone and gave it to principal Iva Scott.
Those early moments, described in Peninsula School District records, prompted an internal investigation, a parental uproar, the immediate suspension of Rosi, the boy’s withdrawal from school, and six months later, a public firestorm. The videos and accounts of the bullying incident, first published by The News Tribune last week, have embroiled the school district in waves of recrimination and questions about how school leaders handled the situation.
In late March 2012 – seven weeks after the incident – the boy’s parents requested records of the investigation as well as Rosi’s complete personnel file. Disturbed by the district’s reactions to the incident, they later retained Fircrest attorney Joan Mell, and subsequently shared the records with The News Tribune. The parents have not filed suit, but they remain frustrated by the district’s treatment of the incident as horseplay rather than bullying. They recently asked the Pierce County Sheriff’s Department to investigate the incident as a possible crime; that inquiry is ongoing.
The records show school and district leaders took swift action on some fronts. They suspended Rosi within hours and launched an internal investigation. A note sent home with students referred to “inappropriate roughhousing among students and the classroom teacher,” but provided few other specifics.
The students who participated in the bullying received no formal punishment. Records of the investigation show no sign that district officials informed law enforcement or state child protective agents at the time.
Rosi ultimately accepted a 10-day suspension without pay in lieu of termination, according to records. He was shifted to substitute status. District officials assigned him to Harbor Ridge Middle School as the fall school year approached. Last Thursday, they placed him on paid administrative leave. Rosi did not respond to a phone call seeking comment.
On the afternoon of Feb. 2, Kopachuck principal Iva Scott watched the video footage on the phone and looked at the student who recorded it. The student said it was taken in Rosi’s class that morning. Two other students recorded it, too, they said.
Scott hadn’t seen everything yet, but she’d seen enough, according to her notes. The boy was being held by his arms and legs, dragged, taunted. Sometimes he laughed. Sometimes he screamed. Rosi was in on the action, threatening to sit on the boy, poking him in the stomach. Perhaps worse, the incident kept going and going.
“Additionally, we also saw students wrestling on the floor and overall chaos,” Scott wrote. “I was extremely concerned about the boundary violation issues.”
Scott called a higher-up at the Peninsula School District: Dan Gregory, academic officer. She explained what she’d seen, and said she was still finding out more. Gregory asked if any kids were in danger.
Scott said the students had been told about “boundary issues” before. She said she had spoken to Rosi earlier in the year about wrestling with students. Records provide no further detail about the discussion. A stray reference in Gregory’s handwritten notes refers to comments from “CC,” the initials of then-deputy superintendent Chuck Cuzzetto. The comments appear to address Rosi’s status.
“Take him out of classroom while we look into it,” the notes say.
TEACHER PUT ON LEAVE
Meanwhile, Scott looked at Rosi’s class list and called several students to her office. All were in the same class: Kopatime, a half-hour morning slot designated for math and reading preparation.
Scott asked the students to download the videos to her computer. She also asked them to delete their copies, not wanting to see them on Facebook or YouTube. The students agreed.
Gregory called Scott back. He said the district was drafting a letter to Rosi, to be delivered before the end of the day. Scott called Rosi and asked to meet with him after school.
She said he might want a union representative to come along. Rosi said he didn’t need a representative. Scott urged him to reconsider, she wrote in her notes.
Rosi, 50, was a 14-year veteran of the school district, much of it spent at Kopachuck. He taught math and P.E., advised student government at times, coached wrestling and soccer – both girls and boys. He was popular with some kids, known for fart jokes, looseness and kindness. He’d been formally reprimanded in 2005 for giving students an early look at portions of the Washington Assessment of Student Learning test booklet, which led to a letter in his personnel file.
Apart from that, and Scott’s admonition earlier in the year about wrestling, Rosi’s official record was clean.
During the meeting with Scott, he downplayed the morning scuffle.
“He stated that the Kopatime incident was all in fun and that the videos make it ‘look’ a lot worse than from his classroom perspective,” Scott’s notes state. “He comments that he should not have allowed students to record during Kopatime.”
Scott gave Rosi the letter from district administration. It placed him on paid administrative leave, effective immediately. An investigation would follow. Rosi was entitled to union representation. He was warned to have no contact with students, staff or parents regarding the incident.
Scott had one task left. She called the mother of the boy who had been dragged around Rosi’s classroom, and asked for a meeting the following morning.
The boy’s mother said she didn’t know what had happened. Her son had received text messages from students.
“Did you get beat up?” one asked. The boy had dismissed it, but the mother was worried.
“She was concerned because (the boy’s) phone had many text messages indicating there was a fight,” the notes state.
Scott assured the mother that the boy was not in any trouble.
The next morning, the boy’s mother called to cancel the appointment, saying her son was ill. During lunch periods, students asked Scott about Rosi’s absence. Had he been suspended?
Scott said Rosi wasn’t at school and she wasn’t sure why, her notes state. That afternoon, Scott and an assistant principal met with Gregory and Cuzzetto and shared copies of the videos.
There was more footage now – more long minutes of the boy laughing, screaming, a sock stuffed in his mouth, a pillow placed over his face, chairs stacked on top of him, and Rosi in the background, sometimes coming forward. He even wrestled with the boy.
Over the weekend, outside Kopachuck’s walls, rumors flew, according to records.
The boy’s phone buzzed with messages, many of them misinformed: Rosi had been suspended, maybe arrested. The boy had been suspended. What would he say about Rosi?
The boy texted back, saying don’t worry, he wouldn’t say anything.
Parents called the boy’s mother. They asked whether Rosi had been arrested. The mother’s friends said parents were calling other parents, blaming the family for making a big deal out of the incident, records state.
By Monday morning, Scott was fielding phone calls and requests from parents asking to have their students removed from Rosi’s class. She shifted the students out.
A concerned mother of a student in the class sent an email, asking what was going on. Her son was upset.
“At one point, he said that Mr. Rosi said, ‘What happens in this classroom stays in this classroom!’ Which is not okay with me!” the mother wrote.
The mother told her son she would tell Scott, the principal – that made it worse.
“(He) became very upset and said that maybe he wasn’t remembering correctly and I shouldn’t quote him? This is not like my son to be so wishy-washy,” the mother wrote. “I think he’s scared about something. I know he’s worried about something.”
Next came a tough moment: the rescheduled meeting with the mother of the boy at the center of the incident.
The boy came along. He was sent to the Kopatime class while his mother and the principal talked. Rosi, now on paid leave, wasn’t there – but the students were.
After the boy left, the mother asked the principal what happened. Scott said several students recorded the incident on video.
The mother wanted to see the videos. Scott said they were in the hands of school district officials, who were trying to decide what to do next.
As they talked, the boy came back from class unexpectedly.
“He was upset and soon started crying,” Scott wrote. “He stated that students are blaming him for Mr. Rosi’s absence. He also said he wanted to kill himself and get out of this school. At one point I asked him what we could do to help him, and he said that (the) only thing we could do to make things better for him is to bring Mr. Rosi back.”
The boy and his mother went home. Scott and an assistant principal walked to the Kopatime class and spoke to students.
“During the 10-minute meeting we clarified how the incident came to our attention, no one student is responsible for what occurred and no student will earn infractions as a result of it,” Scott’s notes state.
“We did clarify that what occurred was unacceptable use of class time, that some behaviors were not appropriate.”
Scott wrote a letter and sent it home with students. It referred to an incident “involving inappropriate roughhousing among students and the classroom teacher. The teacher has been placed on nondisciplinary administrative leave and the District is investigating the matter.”
The letter said no student or family blew the whistle. It warned against listening to gossip.
“It has come to my attention that some students or their families may be targeting other students or their families with blame for causing the suspension of this teacher,” Scott wrote. “Any such blame would be misplaced.”
The mother of the boy told school officials her son would not return until the matter was resolved.
The incident remained unknown and unpublicized outside the small Kopachuck community. There had been no police report, no other notice that would have caused a public stir.
‘BOYS WILL BE BOYS’
By Feb. 8, six days after the incident, school district officials had hired an outside attorney, Rachel Miller, to conduct an investigation. Scott provided background information, including a list of students involved in the incident: more than a dozen, counting participants and witnesses.
The first step was an interview with Rosi, set for Feb. 10. He brought a union representative with him: Jim Falcochio, president of the Peninsula Education Association.
Miller asked the questions, according to records. Caroline Antholt, who handled human resources and risk management for the district, sat in.
Rosi said he’d known the boy since sixth grade. The boy liked to roughhouse, Rosi said – slug and shove in a playful way. Rosi, a longtime wrestling coach, didn’t mind. He said the boy’s parents talked to him at the beginning of the school year. The boy liked Rosi, the parents said – they were happy to have him as a teacher.
On the day of the incident, Rosi said, the boy had been wrestling with another kid when class started. That was fairly typical, Rosi said. The boy was a mover. He liked to hide under tables and squirm around.
The group started watching the videos. Rosi narrated. In one clip, the boy was wrestling with another boy. In another, students wrote on his feet. Rosi said he’d told the students not to do it. The boy was yelling – an adolescent squeal, high-pitched.
Miller asked Rosi why he didn’t stop the kids. Rosi said he’d been tired that day.
“I just let it ride,” he said.
Was he trying to teach the boy a lesson? No, Rosi said. Had he told the kids not to put the videos on Facebook or YouTube? He had.
Another video showed the kids stacking chairs over the boy and standing on them. Rosi said the chairs weren’t really “on” the boy – just over him, like a roof.
In another clip, Rosi and the boy wrestled.
“He was wrestling with me, so I wrestled him,” Rosi said. More than once, the notes state, Rosi said, “Boys will be boys.”
Miller asked if Rosi had been told not to wrestle with kids. Rosi said he had, earlier in the year, by Iva Scott.
Watching more clips, Miller asked why Rosi never told the kids to stop.
It wasn’t good classroom management, Rosi admitted – but it was just “horseplay and kids letting off steam.”
“I know what’s dangerous, and he wasn’t getting hurt,” Rosi said.
What about mentally getting hurt?
Rosi said he didn’t know anything about that. He pointed to the clips, and the boy.
“See him coming back again and again,” Rosi said.
What about the kids recording it, the attorney asked.
Rosi said he shouldn’t have allowed it. He said he was just tired that day.
Had Rosi thought about modeling behavior for the students?
Rosi said he knew he could get control, the notes state. He said this type of incident had never happened before in his career.
The attorney asked for an overall reaction to the clips. Rosi said they looked terrible: dangerous, no classroom management, no lesson plan.
Did he know the boy had emotional issues? Rosi said he wasn’t aware of it. He said the videos looked like bullying but they weren’t. He said the boy was small. Rosi was small as a boy, he said. He knew what it was like.
He said he knew what was dangerous and what wasn’t. He said he was “just letting boys be boys.”
It wasn’t proper classroom behavior, he said, but it wasn’t dangerous. The boy was always pestering classmates, he said, so he thought he would let the moment play out.
The attorney told Rosi he was on leave. He shouldn’t talk to anyone. No one could retaliate against him, and vice versa.
Rosi sent the attorney a follow-up letter on Feb. 10, recounting his views of the incident in writing.
He said the boy was wrestling with a few other boys when class started.
“I told the kids not to hurt one another and let them wrestle around a bit,” he wrote. “(The boy) absolutely went along with the horseplay and never once complained or instructed anyone to stop .
“I simply viewed the interaction as a matter of boys will be boys and allowing the kids a diversion from the normal after a long period of intense studies.”
‘A GREAT TEACHER’
On Feb. 13, a parent unidentified in records sent Scott an email.
“As I see it there wasn’t any ‘incident’ in the Kopatime class,” the note said. “A teacher, who teaches several different classes, one of which is wrestling, took a few minutes of his class time to joke around with his students. This is hardly the means for suspension. No student complained, because nothing happened!”
The writer chided school officials for taking away the students’ phones and defended Rosi.
“A great teacher! One who captivates students with his humorous antics!” the writer said. “Gone, for no good reason! Hopefully John Rosi will be back soon! Where he belongs! In my child’s classroom!”
Students came next in the investigation. Scott, Miller and Antholt, the risk manager, interviewed four of them. The names are redacted in records.
Student A said the incident was “just horsing around.” It happened a lot in Rosi’s class, she said. Kids would roughhouse and pick each other up. The boy at the center was often part of it. He would punch other students and they would pick him up. Usually Rosi would settle everyone down. He didn’t do it that day.
She said the students missed Rosi. The kids that recorded the incident felt like it was their fault, but it wasn’t – it was a group effort.
Student B said the boy came into class with his shoes off. Other kids came in and teased him and asked Rosi if they could “beat him,” but they were just joking around and Rosi said yes. Everybody joined in, and she thought the boy was having fun until about the last 10 minutes, when they started putting chairs on him. But he hadn’t been hurt.
She said she told Rosi, “you know you influenced this,” and Rosi said, “Yeah, I know.”
She said she was good friends with the boy and ate lunch with him. She thought he jumped on kids to get attention. She didn’t think anyone blamed him.
Student C said the boy was playing around at the beginning of class, punching and wrestling. Other kids grabbed the boy, but he was fine with it. It started out playful and got carried away. Nobody was blaming the boy, he said – they were blaming the kids who shot the videos. Rosi was laid back, he said.
Student D said the boy was pestering people, and wanted to wrestle with Rosi, and Rosi said yes. It was all a lot of fun and not meant to hurt anyone. The boy laughed the whole time. The students were blaming the boy because he wasn’t at school. But they were also blaming Rosi because he could have stopped the incident.
PARENTS VIEW VIDEOS
On Feb. 16, Miller and Antholt met with Betsy Ramsey, the school counselor.
Ramsey said the boy’s parents had asked him to be taken out of another class a few days before the bullying incident.
She said she’d heard reports that Rosi’s class was too rowdy, records state. Another parent had complained Rosi didn’t follow any curriculum. She didn’t recall the boy talking to her about other students recently, but he’d talked to her the previous year.
Ramsey watched the videos.
“I see a boy who initiates,” she said.
The same day, Miller and Antholt met with the boy’s parents. They saw the videos for the first time. The boy’s mother cried, records state.
The parents said that a few days before the incident, the boy had said he hated school and didn’t want to live.
The father said the boy was sending mixed messages. Sometimes he said the incident was all in fun. But he didn’t act that way.
The mother was mad, records state. The father said he wanted to be objective. He didn’t think Rosi was malicious – but he was obtuse, shouldn’t have fostered the behavior. The mother wanted her son’s psychologist to see the videos.
The mother said the boy had tried to talk to a counselor about past problems but it didn’t help. The kids found out, and said the boy “ratted on them,” records state.
BOY LEAVES KOPACHUCK
Records reveal little of what went on in subsequent weeks. The boy did not return to school. Near the end of March, his mother requested all records related to the investigation. She didn’t get them until April 26.
The same day marked the end of the investigation. District officials formally suspended Rosi without pay for 10 days, and removed him from Kopachuck for the remainder of the year.
The boy never returned to Kopachuck. He spent the last four months of his eighth-grade year at home, completing his classes with occasional tutoring.
A math instructor (not Rosi) sent the boy’s mother an email on June 22, asking about the boy’s final grade. He could take a B-minus, or an incomplete, with the idea of studying chapter 12 in the math book over the summer.
In the email, the teacher told the mother to say hi to the email@example.com