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Are Tacoma schools doing enough to combat bullying? Some parents think not

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This bullying explainer that defines what bullying is, who is affected by it, and how prevention is possible.
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This bullying explainer that defines what bullying is, who is affected by it, and how prevention is possible.

Some parents think Tacoma Public Schools isn’t adequately enforcing its no-bullying policy.

After multiple parents and students addressed the school board at a June 27 meeting, one former Mann Elementary School parent started a petition asking for more active enforcement.

“This is a district problem,” said Tina Pogue, whose son no longer attends Mann because of bullying. “This isn’t a problem with that student or with that specific person, this is a district-wide problem and it needs to be addressed.”

Dan Voelpel, executive director of communication for Tacoma Public Schools, said each case of bullying and intimidation that’s reported is taken seriously, and the school follows up with it.

Voelpel said discipline for students who are found to have violated the district’s no-bullying policy is privileged information, so families who make a report might not hear back about what occurs.

“There’s sometimes an assumption that the district didn’t do anything, but that would vary from case to case,” Voelpel said. “In those circumstances, it’s easy to see where some people might feel like we haven’t done enough, but we follow up on every case that we hear about.”

Tacoma Public Schools Regulation 3207R states that it is a “violation of district policy for a student to be harassed, intimidated or bullied by others in the school community, at school sponsored events or when such actions create a substantial disruption to the educational process.”

The regulation goes on to say staff who observe, overhear or witness harassment, intimidation or bullying, or if it’s reported to them, must take action to stop the harassment and prevent it from happening again.

Voelpel said teachers, counselors and school employees who interact with students are supposed to take two online courses every year. The training modules are created through Safe Schools Training, and multiple districts throughout the state use them, he said.

During the June 27 school board meeting, two other parents spoke about their children’s safety and incidences of assault or bullying, and one student from First Creek Middle School talked about being bullied and sexually harassed.

“I feel like I can’t get a good education because I’m too busy watching my back to make sure that things aren’t going bad,” the girl said at the meeting.

School board members were unable to respond directly after public comment, but Enrique Leon, director of the board, did say near the end of the meeting that he hears stories like the ones that were shared at the meeting at schools he visits and in his office.

“I want everyone to know we are working hard to try to prevent these things from happening,” Leon said. “None of them should happen, but there are things that we’re unable to share about full investigations that are existing, but the superintendent’s office is looking into them and we’d like to get feedback and follow up on what we heard about today.”

He didn’t feel safe

Pogue said her son was bullied and abused throughout his first-grade year at Mann Elementary School in 2017-2018, and she never received a phone call about it.

“The only time I was ever called was when my son was sick and they needed me to come to get him, but I was never called or notified any time that he was abused,” Pogue said.

She said her son and a few of his classmates told her most of the incidents happened at recess. Her son was kicked, tripped, punched, pinned against a wall and choked.

Pogue said she spoke with the principal at Mann on multiple occasions.

“I didn’t even need to make an appointment, I could just walk in and he knew exactly who I was,” Pogue said. “All he ever did was give me words — no follow through, no action. I was never followed up with, I was never spoken to.”

Pogue said the principal said he would add a noon attendant to help watch the kids. The attendant, though, was allocated to the lunchroom leaving one adult watching students outside at recess, Pogue said.

Pogue said her son no longer felt safe at school. She said when he started second grade, he was excited but began faking sickness within the first week.

About five weeks later, Pogue said she received a call from the school nurse saying her son had been punched in the chest. The day after, she pulled her son out of Mann Elementary and home-schooled him for the remainder of the school year.

“I send my kid to school to learn, but he needs to be safe,” Pogue said. “I’m not doing my job as a parent if I send him somewhere and he’s not safe. Kids will not learn if they don’t feel safe.”

Pogue said she attempted to start the petition last fall after discovering it wasn’t only her son being bullied, but no one responded.

Before the 2018-2019 school year ended, Pogue said another mother reached out about her daughter getting bullied at Mann and said the administration did nothing about it.

Pogue tried again with her petition, which had 117 signatures as of Aug. 28.

After speaking at the June 27 school board meeting, Pogue was approached by the school district’s attorney. Pogue said the attorney apologized for what happened to her son and said someone would follow up with her. Pogue said she was contacted by a lawyer from the school district July 31 to discuss her son’s experience at Mann.

Pogue said she is selling her house to no longer be zoned for the elementary school. She said her family won’t necessarily move out of the school district, but she will be picky about where she sends her kids next.

Voelpel said he can’t speak to cases where parents say they haven’t been contacted by schools about their students as he’s not familiar with individual cases, but it is part of the district’s protocol to speak with families when reports are made.

Interfering with education

The no-bullying regulation for the school district defines harassment, intimidation or bullying as “an intentional electronic, written, verbal, auditory or physical act that: physically harms a student; or damages the student’s property; or has the effect of substantially interfering with a student’s education; or is so severe, persistent or pervasive that it creates an intimidating or threatening educational environment; or has the effect of substantially disrupting the orderly operation of the school.”

The interference with education can be determined by grades, attendance, demeanor, interaction with peers, participation in the classroom or other indicators.

The regulation also states that students are supposed to receive annual “age-appropriate education on the recognition, prevention of and intervention strategies in response to harassment, intimidation or bullying.”

The regulation requires district facilities to “prominently display information on reporting harassment, intimidation and bullying, the name and contact info of the school administrator to whom a report is made and the name and contact info for the district compliance officer.”

The majority of the district’s 56 schools link to the Parent and Student Handbook from the school district’s website, mention a discipline track in their school-specific handbook, and/or have school-parent-student compacts. There is no online mention or indication of contact information for an administrator or district compliance officer available for public viewing.

Voelpel said each school hangs posters throughout its buildings detailing information on how to report an incident, as well as sends out parent handbooks at the beginning of the year with the same information.

Each case unique

Voelpel said each bullying case is unique.

According to Tacoma Public Schools records, there were about 1,956 cases reported between 2017 and 2019 that fall under bullying or harassment/intimidation, with some incidents reported as part of the 2016-2017 school year. The district’s public records manager said all incidents in the records are not necessarily student-to-student and include some threats to staff.

Response to the cases ranged from office, lunch and after-school detention to a parent conference to short-term suspension. Eleven required no action.

“There are dynamics at play that make it clear-cut, and sometimes it doesn’t,” Voelpel said. “We want to provide safe learning environments for all our kids so that they want to come to school, they feel safe at school. When they don’t and we get a report that there is a potential bullying case, we follow up on every one.”

According to the Washington State report cards for school districts, more than 2,300 of the 32,111 students in the Tacoma School District for the 2017-2018 school year received a short- or long-term suspension, emergency expulsion or expulsion for a discipline-related incident.

According to the report card, that makes up 7.3 percent of students.

Protecting her child

Tomieka Gaytan said she also wasn’t contacted by her daughter’s school when she was having issues and ultimately elected to move out of Tacoma.

Gaytan’s daughter Jadyn, now 14, attends a junior high school in Puyallup after being bullied at Stewart and Giaudrone middle schools.

Gaytan said the bullying began at school with comments on how skinny Jadyn was. Then, it moved to their house.

She said about 8-10 girls showed up at their front door and told her to bring Jadyn out they could beat her up. Gaytan said she told them to call their parents so they could talk about the situation and later called the police.

Gaytan said she went to the school and the principal said nothing could be done since it happened off of school grounds, and nothing could be done about the comments since it happened in the past. About two weeks later, there was almost a fight between Jadyn and the other girls at the mall.

Again, Gaytan said she spoke with the school and they said nothing could be done, especially since one of the girls was moving to the 9th grade.

“So because she’s almost out of the school that gives her a right to pick a fight with my daughter?” Gaytan said.

Jadyn transferred to Giaudrone, but the bullying followed her. She finished the school year, but with 57 absences, according to school records. Gaytain said Jadyn would sometimes come home shaking.

“I would stay in my room when I got home,” Jadyn said. “I wouldn’t talk to anybody, I would just lay in my room and occasionally I wouldn’t eat dinner. I would go to bed at 5:30, 6 just to get the day over with.”

Jadyn said she would plan to be sick the next day or go to the nurse’s office while at school.

“You do what you can to protect your child, but when you don’t have help from the people that are supposed to be protecting her while you can’t be there, what do you do?” Gaytan said. “It’s an epidemic that needs to be taken care of.”

According to Bullying Statistics, bullying victims are two to nine times more likely to consider suicide than non-victims, and 30 percent of students are either bullies or victims of bullying.

The site also states that 160,000 kids stay home from school every day because of fear of bullying.

Gaytan pulled Jadyn out of Tacoma schools. After some time, they moved to Puyallup and said they haven’t had issues with the district or school enforcing no-bullying policies.

Jadyn went to counseling following her time in Tacoma schools and is now doing better. She also said she realizes that none of it was her fault.

“It was the kid’s fault that was doing it and they weren’t getting the help that they needed through counselors or telling their parents how they felt,” Jadyn said. “They weren’t in the right environment. I just told myself it will soon be over and I have no reason to be afraid because I have my parents here to protect me and the schools here (in Puyallup) and I’ll get through it.”

Gaytan said she signed the petition Pogue started, and said she wants the schools to enforce their policies, but more can be done to prevent and stop bullying.

“If a student comes to you and says they’re getting bullied, even if it’s the slightest thing, put a stop to it,” Gaytan said. “They’re there for an education. They’re not there to get picked on.”

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