Johnston family shines a light on bullying

After recently finding bruises on her daughter’s arm, Polenta Elementary School mother Anna Schmidt took to Facebook to speak out about bullying. The post quickly picked up steam and had been shared hundreds of times by last week.

Schmidt said that because the school didn’t fully address an incident last year, her daughter has been subjected to ongoing bullying, both verbal and, on two occasions, physical. She said she feels both she and the school failed her daughter.

“I believe this could have been prevented,” Schmidt said of the latest bruise.

Last year, when her daughter, Emma Watkins, was third-grader, a boy slapped her in the face after he became upset about not being able to log into a computer, Schmidt said. The incident was reported but ultimately characterized as an accident, she said.

Schmidt said she feels her daughter was led to doubt her understanding of the incident. “The boy said it was an accident and that (Emma) was his friend,” she said. “They asked her if it might possibly could have been an accident. It’s scary when kids go to the principal’s office, even when they haven’t done anything wrong. They want to make adults happy.”

Emma said the student apologized to her, but she didn’t feel it was an accident. “How can a slap be an accident?” she said.

Schmidt said she was unsatisfied with the resolution but was willing to move on. The bullying continued though, with Emma teased and harassed in class if she got questions wrong, Schmidt said. Her daughter had always done well in school but needed a math tutor last summer because she couldn’t concentrate on her schoolwork, she said.

“She never felt comfortable asking a question when she’s being teased,” Schmidt said.

This school year, Emma and the boy were placed in the same class at Polenta.

“I thought: ‘Here it goes again. I hope nothing bad happens,’ ” Emma said.

Schmidt didn’t want to take that chance. She asked the school to move her daughter to another class, but the Polenta administration refused, she said.

“The principal, (Susan) Jones, said, ‘Oh, we’re going to have a great year,’ ” Schmidt said.

Emma said the boy is often goofing around and is something of a class clown. She said that she largely avoids him and that the teasing, though it continues, isn’t bad. But earlier this month on the way back into the building, the boy was playing with a plastic rod, she said. When she ignored it, he hit her in the arm, she said.

After an investigation, the school moved Emma to another class and disciplined the boy, Schmidt said.

Jones did not respond to an email seeking comment. The school system issued a statement that it did not comment on specific cases of school discipline.

“Because student discipline is a part of the student record, it is confidential,” the statement read. “We take this situation seriously, and our schools follow the Johnston County Board of Education Policy 4200: Code of Student Conduct when handling student discipline. The district and the school are eager to work with the parents to resolve the issue.”

Schmidt said she had not attempted to get in touch with the student’s parents, saying it was the school’s responsibility to protect students and resolve conflicts.

“You’ve got to be careful to confront someone about their child,” Schmidt said. “My job is to inform the school when there’s a problem, and it’s the school’s job to protect our children.”

Emma said she’s happy in her new class and has received a fair amount of attention in the community for bringing attention to bullying.

Schmidt has filed a grievance with the school over the issue and had a meeting last week with Jones. In a recording of the meeting, Jones acknowledges both incidents but said the school thinks the incident last year was an accident.

“I wouldn’t put Emma or any child in a situation where I felt they would be hurt or harmed,” Jones said on the recording of the meeting, later apologizing for what happened this year.

Schmidt said the meeting was productive and addressed her concerns. She said she’s pressing the issue as a matter of protecting her daughter and seeing that Johnston schools do more to combat bullying.

“I just want changes to be made,” Schmidt said.