MORONGO BASIN –– Twenty-eight percent of U.S. students in grades 6-12 experienced bullying and 30 percent admit to bullying others. Bullying has been linked to depression, suicide and violence as young children grow into adulthood, a group of Morongo Basin Unified School District parents say, and they want it to stop.
The parents attended a Board of Education meeting Tuesday night, March 27, at Friendly Hills Elementary School to ask for more resources for their kids.
Holding signs reading “bullying stops here” and “stop bullying now,” participants met outside the school around 4:45 p.m. and demonstrated while board members met inside. Once the meeting opened to the public, around 7 p.m., they made their way into the MPR and talked about the bullying their children had experienced.
Ashley Gaona was one of the parents present and, with her son by her side, she told the school board that her child had experienced bullying to the point where he felt unsafe in his school.
“What would you do if that was your child?’”she asked the board members. “These kids are sick and tired of being bullied and someone needs to help them.”
Gaona said her son, a student at La Contenta Middle School, was physically harmed outside of his bus stop at Onaga Elementary. La Contenta Principal Dr. Garrett Gruwell said the only thing that can be proven is that the student was tripped, since only that was caught on video.
Schools throughout the district make their own policies on bullying and threats. La Contenta, for example, specifies that students who bully or harass their classmates will receive three periods of on-campus intervention. They are removed from class for a portion of the day to talk to a counselor.
Second offenders must also sign a contract that specifies if they bully again they may be suspended or expelled from school. They also may get a referral to law enforcement.
However, all of these punishments are at the discretion of the school.
The policies do not necessarily take into account the severity of the incident –– bullying is one category in the schools’ matrix of violations and punishments. Mutual fighting warrants more severe punishments.
In the case of Gaona’s son, all that could be proven without a doubt was that he was tripped, so the students involved were given on-campus intervention and put on contracts. They were also cited by law enforcement, but they still attend the school and received no form of suspension or expulsion.
Since the incident, Gaona has been waiting for her son at the bus stop each day with anti-bullying signs. She wants to press charges against the children she says hurt him.
“You have a policy that says zero tolerance for bullying. You have signs everywhere saying ‘zero tolerance,’ so I want to know what you are doing to show zero tolerance,” she said to the board.
La Contenta principal defends system
La Contenta Middle School does have procedures to respond to bullying and harassment. An assembly at the beginning of the year and weekly sessions focus on character development.
The school also has systems to reward good behavior, and anti-bullying policies are printed in student handbooks.
“We’re teaching our kids how to properly behave and how to act in the face of bullying,” Gruwell said in an interview this week.
The school district also provides a texting app that kids can log into from their phones or computers to anonymously report incidents on campus.
“This is the age where sometimes kids don’t want to be snitches and that’s one of the hard things for us as a school. Sometimes we don’t know what’s going on out there, especially on the buses,” Gruwell said.
La Contenta also has video cameras recording the campus and buses. The cameras have some blind spots due to lighting, the school is hoping to remedy that by next year so that the entire campus will be in view of the cameras.
At Tuesday’s board meeting, another concerned family member, Diane Mann, asked, “If you have video cameras, then how is bullying even still happening?”
Mann is the grandmother of a former La Contenta student who she says was bullied and is now too afraid to go back to school.
Protester: Not enough punishment
Mann organized the protest before the meeting and spoke to the board. She emphasized that the issue was not with one specific school.
She believes the district’s policies are ineffective because they reward good behavior but do not punish bad behavior.
“If you have no consequences and just reward kids for better behavior, then kids are just going to do it again,” Mann said.
Board President Karalee Hargrove, who has four children in public school, ended the meeting by saying she understands the problem, but her view on bullying is it can be solved best by encouraging positive behaviors.
“I’m all about kindness,” Hargrove said. “Teaching kindness has always been my main focus.”
Board members said they would look into the situation further.
“Know that we hear you and will look into the problem,” Hargrove said.