Bullying issue takes center stage at Kaneland forum

By on September 28, 2012

by Keith Beebe
KANELAND—Kaneland parents, students, faculty, staff and administration on Monday gathered at Harter Middle School to participate in a forum to discuss the issue of bullying in the School District.

Intended as a walkthrough of District 302’s bullying and intervention plan, followed by a short Q&A session, the forum instead served as a vehicle for Kaneland parents to vent their frustration with bullying problems that persist in the district despite Kaneland’s attempts to define, monitor and ultimately discourage bullying behavior.

The forum began with a short presentation highlighting “key components” of Kaneland’s bullying plan, including a clear definition of “bullying”; a consistent framework for intervention and prevention that can be adjusted based on needs at the elementary, middle and high school levels; documentation; and a data system to target and identify problem behaviors and areas in each school.

The presentation then identified the three major types of bullying—physical, relational (emotional) and verbal—and the three degrees of bullying. Level one involves a bully who feels genuine guilt as a result of their behavior, and the bullying action isn’t repeated. Level two involves a bully who has malicious intent and justifies the behavior, and the bullying initially defined in level one persists. Level three involves an “extreme degree” of the bullying defined in the first two levels, and the aggressor can be manipulative, failing to take responsibility for their behavior.

During the attached Q&A session, a parent in the audience questioned the validity of Kaneland’s bullying data, when many cases go unreported.

“That’s probably a fair concern. I don’t know the answer to that. I don’t think we would fully know something that’s not reported unless it either, again, comes forward through a direct report of an incident, or it’s reflected in the data on the Illinois Youth Survey,” Schuler said.

According to the presentation, the Illinois Youth Survey is administered at the middle-school level to gather comprehensive student perspective and compare data with trends.

Andrea Stapleton of Montgomery said during the forum that she understands school bullying cannot change unless students speak up and also tell their parents to speak up.

“In terms of changing the school culture … there are a few students at the middle school who really perceive that this (bullying prevention) system, as great as it is theoretically, when it comes down to (students) coming in and reporting, they feel like the system sort of backs the bully,” she said.

Several of the parents nodded in agreement with Stapleton’s comment.

“Must be a common experience,” Stapleton said.

Harter Middle School Principal Bryan Zwemke said during the forum that the district’s goal is to get bullying behavior to completely stop.

“Whatever the case may be. Whatever the student’s story is … and there are two sides of it … we just want that behavior to stop,” he said. “And there may be times where we’re not able to give somebody complete closure, which is really difficult in this situation—for parents, for kids—not to have that closure.”

Zwemke explained Kaneland’s data and monitoring system, which is known as SWIS (school-wide information system). According to the district’s bully and intervention plan, SWIS is used by all six Kaneland buildings to track behavior concerns and infractions by time, location and student. Universal behavior teams monitor the data at regular meetings to target prevention efforts, intervention needs, and address problem areas and times.

The plan also emphasizes the importance of reporting bullying incidents, stating that there are multiple opportunities available for students to report directly to an adult, complete a bullying form or call a tip line.

The bullying discussion spilled into the public comment portion of the regular School Board meeting, as well. Elburn resident Leigh Ann Reusche, who has two children currently enrolled in District 302, read a letter on behalf of the group Knights Against Bullying, a self-described “group of concerned parents, teachers, former students, and community members coming together for the purpose of addressing the issue of bullying in our schools, and in our communities.”

“Our primary purpose in addressing the School Board tonight is to express our concern for the district’s response to bullying, and offer our suggestions and support to move forward together as a community,” Reusche said. “Many of our students have lived this bullying nightmare for weeks, months, even years. This is not an isolated incident or two. Bullying is the reality for students in our schools today.”

Reusche then asked the board to implement five recommendations: make bullying prevention a priority; assign a prevention coordinator; form a task force; develop or adopt a comprehensive, multi-faceted district-wide plan; and implement, maintain and evaluate the plan.

“The Bullying Task Force from the Illinois State Board of Education submits that complete school transformation cannot be accomplished without adequate commitment, time and resources. Securing such commitment requires extensive leadership and management skills from school administrators and school boards,” Reusche said. “We are asking you for your commitment. Let us all be a part of the solution. Policies, cameras, seating charts and forums alone are not going to change the climate of our schools.

“If you teach tolerance, people learn compassion, self-respect leads to self-discipline, assertiveness leads to self-confidence. Let there be no shame or fear for any student, parent, school-support staff, teacher and administrator to stand up and say we need help. We need your leadership and direction because things are out of control,” she said

During the forum, Reusche’s daughter Nadya, who graduated from Kaneland High School in 2008, read a poem she authored in response to the bullying her sisters, Laura and Anna, have endured as Kaneland students.

Elburn resident Darlyne Dwyer spoke during public comment. Her son, bullied constantly since the third grade, was assaulted by a group of students in a Harter Middle School bathroom in November 2010.

Darlyne said her family was dissatisfied with the manner in which the Harter Middle School president and district superintendent responded to the incident involving her son. The family then went to the authorities and filed a police report.

“The police investigated and brought charges against the boys,” Darlyne said during public comment. “Three boys were charged with a hate crime, four counts of aggravated battery, mob action, unlawful restraint, four counts of battery and two counts of assault—seven felonies and six misdemeanors (in total).”

One of the boys eventually pleaded guilty to mob action and aggravated battery. The other two pleaded guilty to two counts of aggravated battery.

According to Darlyne, the Dwyer family last July met with Kaneland administration and a School Board member.

“We brought a consultant with us. Our goal was to find out if the district was taking the necessary steps to ensure the safety of students. We wanted nothing more than to hear that they were taking things seriously and working to implement best practice in bullying prevention and intervention,” Darlyne read aloud during public comment. “We were dissatisfied to hear they were not implementing best practice.”

Darlyne’s son, who was an 8th-grader at the time of the attack, is no longer enrolled in the Kaneland School District.

Schuler addressed the audience at the conclusion of the forum, stating that no one is condoning issues of bullying and issues of harassment for kids in the Kaneland School District.

“We want the same thing. Whether we’re seeing exactly what it is that we want in the same way right now, that’s clearly something that I think we need to build a partnership to do,” he said. “But I am confident in the fact—whether it’s in this forum—we will only get there through conversation with the people that have concern about this topic. I believe with the utmost confidence that there’s not an administrator in this room who would not be interested (or) willing in having a conversation with you about your specific concern and trying to partner with you.”