“A lot of us don’t feel ‘Thunderbird Proud’ right now,” parent Crystal Heck said.
These accusations followed the death of a North Callaway High School freshman Sept. 10. A Sept. 11 press release from the Callaway County Sheriff’s Office stated “preliminary findings” indicated the student died by suicide, though according to Sheriff Clay Chism the investigation is ongoing and will likely be active for months.
After the school announced the death and cancelled a planned football game, rumors proliferated on social media suggesting the student had been bullied. Heck shared a video to Facebook showing a fight between the deceased student and a classmate.
“You know what, (since then,) over 100 parents and children have come to me from this community, have reached out to me over the weekend, since their children are going through the same thing,” she said. “Their kids have been hospitalized; there are kids who’ve attempted suicide.”
In a Monday post to Facebook, the district disputed whether the video shows a bullying incident. Superintendent Nicole Kemp said she penned the post with help from the district’s legal council. (Multiple speakers at Thursday’s meeting criticized the post; Danielle Huddleston, wife of school board member Greg Huddleston, described it as “cold” and “victim blaming.”)
“The students did have a fight after football practice,” reads the post, in part. “It was mutually participated in. While no adults were present, disciplinary action was taken against both students consistent with the high school discipline code. This incident took place two-and-a-half weeks before this tragic loss of life and does not appear, at this point, to be related.”
The post asks people to refrain from pointing fingers.
“Our students and staff have lost a friend, an athlete and a student,” Kemp wrote. “The loss of a student, for any reason, is a tragedy beyond measure. Our thoughts and prayers go out to the family and countless friends.”
Janell Pace, who says her own son was bullied at North Callaway before she pulled him from the district, said a fight being mutual doesn’t preclude bullying.
“(The deceased student) was bullied, and I’m tired of hearing he wasn’t,” she said. “When you take out a video camera and you film the fight and you’re laughing, that is bullying, and make no mistake about it.
North Callaway’s post also notes the district has a “Bullying Reporting Form” available at each school.
“While reports have been submitted for other students, none were received about the deceased student,” Kemp wrote.
School policy (found online at bit.ly/2s1dFcp) requires employees who witness bullying to report it to the building principal within two days. Bullying reporting forms must be reported as well. Then, the principal is required to initiate an investigation to be completed within 10 days; the investigator can be the principal aided by school employees or an outside investigator hired by the superintendent. Consequences range from loss of privileges all the way up to expulsion and law enforcement being contacted.
But, according to speakers at Thursday’s meeting, some families aren’t aware of the form.
Following the meeting, Kemp claimed the form is mentioned in the district’s student handbooks — which district patrons are supposed to read each year — and is available both in principals’ and counselors’ offices. However, the most recent school handbook posted on the district’s website (for the 2018-19 school year) makes no mention of the form. Instead, it states, “Students are encouraged to report any incident of bullying which they have witnessed or incurred, by contacting their building principal.”
Kemp also stated the form is available on the district’s website. As of Friday, a search of the district website for the bullying form found nothing.
“We probably need to put it out there more,” Kemp said Thursday.
And other parents and former students weren’t convinced reporting the incidents to the school did any good.
Rebecca Wall, a 1993 North Callaway graduate and parent of a current freshman, said her daughter was bullied a couple of years ago.
“We did finally fill out a bullying report when, quite honestly, I had had enough,” Wall said. “I was not made aware by any district personnel that the bullying form existed — I was made aware of it by another parent. When you tell most people there’s a bullying form, they’ll look at you like that’s new information.”
Wall said after she filled out the initial report, the same child bullied her daughter again. Wall prompted her daughter to file another report, explaining the need to establish a paper trail.
“She said, ‘No, Mom, they don’t do anything,'” Wall recalled.
One mother said her two sons have been targeted by students and staff alike. Jaclyn Summitt is no stranger to the board of education — she first raised concerns about her sons’ treatment to the board during a meeting in 2017. At the time, school board member (now president) Sandy Lavy claimed it was the first time a parent has brought up bullying issues before the board and told Summitt to “trust us as a board and let the process take its course.”
“I had to hospitalize my son twice for suicide attempts due to bullying,” Summitt said Thursday.
Her family opted for online schooling this year not due to COVID-19 but due to the bullying, she added.
Board members also heard from two 2017 graduates, both of whom said they were bullied at North Callaway. One, Taylor Bates, said she reported the bullying she received multiple times, to multiple principals.
“Even when I reported it, I was told, ‘Just get over it,'” she said. “It is so sad that it took a child dying in the way that he did to be listened to.”
In a follow-up interview Friday, Kemp said she couldn’t comment on the specifics of any scenarios mentioned by the people who spoke Thursday.
“The district was listening last night,” she said. “We’ll be meeting as an administrative team (and asking) how we can as a district do a better job of relaying information (and) how better to support and collaborate with our students and patrons.”
Kemp said because the district must respect confidentiality, people who report bullying “aren’t always going to know what happened” — they won’t be informed of what consequences the person they reported faces. But the district does follow through and investigate reports, she said.
If a student or parent feels their child’s report has been inadequately investigated, they can escalate the issue to Kemp or the board of education, Kemp said. Children are also welcome to report issues such as bullying and cyberbullying to any “safe person” in the district, including a counselor or trusted teacher — they don’t have to start with a principal, she said.
According to Kemp, the district dedicates time each year to anti-bullying efforts, including encouraging students to report bullying. The district also has a memorandum of understanding with Missouri Girls’ Town to provide counseling services.
The district’s counselors have a community advisory board to chat with counselors, help shape policy and point out areas where improvement might be needed.
“I could see our counselors reaching out to some of the individuals (who spoke Thursday) to see if they wanted to be on that advisory committee,” Kemp said, adding people interested in joining the committee may reach out to school counselor Melissa Head ([email protected]).
The National Suicide Prevention Lifeline can be reached 24/7 at 800-273-8255.