Nearly 100 parents, school children and residents attended a recent community meeting with Waterford School District administration to share their stories of bullying in the schools.
The meeting came in reaction to what parents and kids are saying is a unique and toxic climate of bullying in Waterford. A recent Facebook post made by Kaila Partlo discussing her third grade daughter’s experience with bullying has been shared over 65,000 times. She said since her original post began to go viral, she’s received calls from over 100 other Waterford parents.
In January, a 9-year-old third grader at Cooley Elementary School took her own life. Her parents believe bullying played a role in her death.
Two of eight Waterford school board members attended the meeting — John Paul Torres, vice president of the board and Bob Piggott, board secretary. Keith Wunderlich, superintendent of the district, also sat on the panel.
Wunderlich said he was in shock after the nearly three-hour meeting filled with personal stories from parents and students in the district. The primary complaint was that the consequences for bullies and bullying isn’t enough to prevent future incidents or make students feel safe even after school administrators steps in. Many parents also said they felt that school principals are ignoring or not paying enough attention to bullying in their schools.
The Waterford district utilizes multiple, nationally recognized anti-bullying programs including the Olweus Bullying Prevention Program, The Leader in Me program and Mindfulness, according to Rhonda Lessel, director of school and community services and spokesperson for the district. The district also relies on peer-mediation contracts between students.
“I’m very apologetic to all the kids and families who have been through this,” Wunderlich said. “We have got to do something about it, as painful as it is for us to hear, it’s a necessary step we have to take.”
Organizing the meeting was a grass-roots effort planned by April Wright, whose 18-year-old daughter, Ashley Wright, was once a Waterford schools student. She said she was bullied for two years in the district before the family moved to Illinois.
Ashley Wright said the depression, anxiety and suicidal thoughts she developed in Waterford essentially disappeared when she started in a new school in Illinois.
Makenzie Benning, 13, and a student at Pierce Middle School, said that she’s dealt with sexual harassment from other students for the past two years.
“I get bullied a lot,” she said. “I get sexually harassed. I’ve told councillors about it and they didn’t do anything … A lot of guys still come up to me and talk about my breasts or butt. I don’t really know what to do anymore, I bawl my eyes out at home. I don’t feel safe. I feel like someone is going to end up touching me.”
Her father, Frank Benning, said the school district hasn’t done enough to stop it.
“These kids need to be prosecuted,” Frank Benning said about the harassers.
Brooklyn Longacre, 14, and a student at Mott High School, said she’s experienced bullying and sexual harassment so intense that she quit playing sports and started seeing a counselor.
“I’ve seen her get bullied, and her,” Longacre said pointing to other students in the audience.
“Peer mediation doesn’t work. I had to walk down the hallway with the same guy who was touching me every day … I’m really tired of it. I’m tired of the excuses. I did go to my principal and the principal said I lied. This is real. This is happening.”
A second open-forum style meeting is planned for 6 to 9 p.m. on Wednesday, March 28, in the Pierce Middle School cafeteria. After that, Wunderlich said he and the school board will form a taskforce of parents, school social workers, administrators, school staff and anti-bullying experts. The group will review current policies, training procedures and anti-bullying programs. New practices would be implemented for the 2018-2019 school year.