Fighting back against bullying
Courtney Wendell's middle school son doesn't even recognize when he's being bullied anymore.
It's that common.
"It genuinely breaks my heart," she says.
Wendell says her son has been bullied by certain students for nearly two years. When he started sixth grade in Champaign, his copy of the brand-new binder every student uses that year to learn organization skills was broken within a few weeks.
And that was just the start of it, his mother said.
"There's a student that knocks it out of his hands every single day," she said. "When I asked if he told a teacher, he said, 'Why would I tell? She was standing right there and saw it happen.' There's a general disregard that's frustrating, but it's just a few kids that make it miserable for everyone."
Unit 4 has investigated 66 reports of bullying district-wide this school year and, according to several district parents and students, that number would be considerably higher if everyone spoke up.
"Kids are afraid to tell," Wendell said. "... In general, we've had a really good experience with Unit 4, but this all feels so heightened now after what happened last week. I always told my son to ignore little things like this, but I'm not sure we should anymore."
The issue of bullying received heightened attention last weekend after a Centennial High School 15-year-old died suddenly after being rushed to a hospital in St. Louis. Champaign police haven't divulged what their investigation or an autopsy has revealed but Luke Miller's parents made it clear in a note to friends Tuesday that while their son was not beaten to death, he had been a victim of bullying.
"Because he was clearly bullied, we will not let that go, either," read the note from Ryan and Heather (Cupps) Miller. "Because of Luke, perhaps we can all make an impact on real change for others still needing help."
Within 48 hours of Luke's death, the incident sparked conversations in teachers lounges, around dinner tables and in school board meetings, with Unit 4 students and parents turning out at the Mellon Administrative Center to ask the board to re-examine its policies.
"The fact that bullying has been brought to the forefront because of this could be positive," Wendell said. "Maybe we can do something to change things to help protect our kids from our kids, frankly."
No matter what local school a student is bullied in, the response to the problem should be similar.
That's because nearly all districts around the area adopt policies written by the Illinois Association of School Boards. It defines bullying as "any severe or pervasive physical or verbal act or conduct, including communications made in writing or electronically, directed toward a student or students that has or can be reasonably predicted to have" one or more of these elements:
— Placing a student, or a student's property, in "reasonable fear or harm."
— Causing a "substantially detrimental effect" on a student's physical or mental health.
— "Substantially interfering" with a student's academic performance or ability to "participate in or benefit from the services, activities or privileges provided by a school."
District policies are updated periodically to reflect changes in state law. The most recent amendment, which went into effect Jan. 1, 2015, added provisions related to cyberbullying at non-school-related locations or functions, or from devices not owned, leased or used by a district or school.
The 'snitch' stigma
While some bullying victims may be afraid of the consequences of speaking up, others simply don't want to be tattletales, school officials have found.
"That part is big for kids because they don't want to be seen as a snitch," said Jennifer Ivory-Tatum, deputy superintendent of the Urbana district, which is working to combat that culture.
Schools are required by law to investigate all reports of bullying, St. Joseph community schools Superintendent Todd Pence said, underscoring the importance of victims coming forward.
"All the parent or student has to do is let any staff member know that something is going on," he said. "It's like being a parent — sometimes we are the last to know, but we can't help if we don't know about it. The vast majority of cases we deal with tend to be two-sided, so we try to get to the root of the problem and help both sides deal with that in an effort to help them move forward. Nine times out of 10, this will take care of the problem."
Districts such as Heritage have made the reporting process easy, providing forms both online and in school offices for parents or children to report incidents. They can also email, call or visit the school in person to speak to an administrator or staff member, Superintendent Tom Davis said.
The same is true in Champaign schools. Students can anonymously report anything they see throughout the school day — even if they're not the victim — by turning in a form available at each school, Unit 4's Orlando Thomas said.
"There's a systemic way to turn that information in without even having a conversation with another person," he said.
At St. Joseph-Ogden High School, most bullying investigations begin with a face-to-face meeting with the students involved or with classmates that have first-hand knowledge of the accusations, Principal Gary Page said. Officials also look at footage from cameras placed throughout the school to see if there is video evidence of an incident.
Later, administrators have conversations with teachers who have both the victim and perpetrator in class, asking them "to keep an extra eye on the situation to ensure things do not continue or escalate at school," Page said.
Any time an incident is alleged to occur in a Unit 4 school, building administrators are required to fill out an investigative report, Thomas said. The same rules apply for all types of bullying — physical, verbal or cyber.
Administrators track who filed the report, when it happened, who was the victim, who was the perpetrator and the age and ethnicity of both. Staff must specify whether it was a one-time or reoccurring case, when parents were contacted, which support staff were informed, whether the allegations were founded or unfounded and what action will be taken.
"They have to explain what their plan is to make sure this doesn't happen again and list any services they used to address the problem, like mediation or referrals to counselors," said Thomas, Unit 4's director of achievement and student services. "There's a variety of options there. The form is kept on file for the duration of the students' time in Unit 4."
But the process is far from fool-proof and doesn't often go far enough in helping victims, contend students who say they've been bullied.
Among the 11 who showed up at Unit 4's board meeting Monday with red signs that read "I've been bullied" was Savannah Walch, a freshman at Centennial.
"It seems like the only way to stop bullying is by telling your parents and getting them involved," she said.
In the aftermath of Mr. Miller's death, school officials heard similar complaints in Fisher, where Amy Huskisson told the school board her 6-year-old daughter has had "hands put on her" by another older student and the only punishment was a "talking to." She said she didn't think that was handled appropriately and the district needs to have a stricter policy.
School board members did not address specific incidents Huskisson brought up, but President Leonard Delany said the issue was "important" to the board.
"We continue to try to do what is best."
Once it's been determined that bullying incidents occurred in Unit 4, a wide range of consequences await perpetrators. Punishment is always handed down on a case-by-case basis, Thomas said.
The penalty for a first offense could be anything from a parent conference with administrators to a one-day out-of-school suspension. A second offense could lead to as much as a five-day suspension.
For repeated offenses or ones deemed to be severe (typically characterized by physical bullying that requires a victim to receive medical attention), penalties range from six days out of school to expulsion, Thomas said.
"With discipline, we're about meeting students where they're at and figuring out what we need to do to help them understand the severity of their actions," he said.
In Urbana, the policies are similar, says Ivory-Tatum, noting that the consequences of bullying are called "interventions."
"Sometimes there's instances where bullying leads to a fight. We try to peel away the layers of the fight, and usually see maybe a student reacted physically as a result of being bullied," she said.
The district often creates separation between students that have issues by changing their class schedules or teams. The district is in year 2 of practicing restorative circles, or mediation, which involve students sitting down together with an adult and having a constructive conversation about the problem.
"It's all about restoring the peace," Ivory-Tatum said. "It becomes less about students telling on each other and more about having conversations. We've seen it work really well, especially at the middle school level, when there's problems with ongoing drama.
"They now have a place to have those conversations in a constructive way, rather than venting their issues on Facebook."
The Leader's Nora Maberry-Daniels and News-Gazette correspondent Carol Thilmony contributed to this report.