To the editor:
This is a written summary of our first town hall meeting. In attendance were roughly about 50 to 55 people, including members of the clergy, State Sen. Sarah Trone Garriott, James West, husband of ADM School Board member Nikki West, current and former teachers, parents who have pulled their children out of the district, current parents, former parents, Lindsey Peterson, the mother of Caelen Peterson, and community members who want to invest in helping.
We opened with some mental health statistics, and the conversation took off from there. There were many good conversations where we discussed all the problems we are seeing in and out of the schools, when and where the problems seem to begin and what is the worst issue we are seeing in the schools right now. We talked about the need of full transparency from the school board and superintendent when it comes to how they are working to move forward after the tragic death of Caelen Peterson.
It was felt that if they were as vocal as we are about the efforts they are making, they may help to calm down the anger and heightened emotions in the community and start paving the way to work together and move forward in progress and healing. It was acknowledged that the superintendent did send out a letter in regards to their effort so far. This needs to continue.
While physical bullying and harassment in the schools is an issue, it seems the first issue we need to tackle is cyberbullying. We discussed how the cell phone policy needs to be strictly enforced and how there need to be repercussions for those students who don’t follow the rules. We talked about how there will be pushback from some parents in the community, but we need to stay strong and back the administration and teachers when approached by angry parents. Administrators need to stay strong and let those parents know that we have reasons for keeping the phones out of the school: the main reason is to keep kids safe. We need to empower the teachers to feel comfortable enforcing the rules and repercussions without fear in regards to their personal safety.
We discussed how there is no clear-cut definitions when it comes to bullying, cyberbullying and harassment in the school’s handbook. One of our current teachers spoke on the importance of language and wording and how it makes a difference when it comes to writing policy. We all agreed that there need to be policies that are spelled out, very specific, clear-cut and iron-clad so that when issues arise, there is no way that anyone can find ways to get around it so they aren’t disciplined. We are very grateful for the information she gave us.
The discussion then turned to discipline and consequences. There seems to not be much in the way of discipline or consequences when it comes to bullying, cyberbullying and harassment. We all agreed that there needs to be a cut-off point and not be giving fourth, fifth, sixth and further chances to kids who continuously cause trouble. There needs to be follow through from the administration when it comes to consequences. We need to find consequences that will get the kids’ and, more importantly, the parents’ attention so that they are more likely to stop their bad behavior.
It was agreed upon by everyone that this behavior starts early, and it starts at home. We can do all that we can as a community and as educators, but ultimately it is up to the parents of the children to be responsible for their children. Parents need to be receptive to other parents or educators when troubling behavior is brought to their attention, rather than just saying, “Not my kid.” Only by being receptive and open for conversation will things changed. It has to be said that it is not realistic to believe we will be able to get all parents to be receptive, but by working together as parents and educators we will try to reach as many people as possible.
We talked about what types of programs we can implement within the community and the schools for parents and children.
- One idea was to offer a technology and social media class for parents to teach them the latest technology and how social media works so that they can understand how to check their children’s technology usage.
- We talked about hosting a required parent meeting at the beginning of the school year to go over the school handbook and how to use the chain-of-command system to escalate any safety issues with their children.
- We talked about having a required cyberbullying/harassment class for the children.
- We talked about written risk assessments for the children during the school year.
It was revealed that it is only taken once a year. It was felt that this may not be enough or even an accurate assessment, as children are just coming back from summer vacation and many things can change throughout the school year. It was felt that maybe this is something we should check quarterly, even if it’s just for use within the school and data not reported to the state. This will help to identify children at risk and enable professionals and parents to closely monitor the child in need. It was felt that maybe having a good, in-school crisis program may be beneficial.
One perspective offered by a former longtime educator was that progress is not going to happen overnight and that we must be patient, understand the process and follow it. There is a lot of red tape, bureaucracy, government interference and lack of interest in funding education and mental health by the governor, which is hindering efforts on behalf of our children and community members. One of our state senators, Sarah Trone Garriott, then spoke and gave us a report on the latest legislation and financial numbers when it comes to funding schools and mental health. She gave advice on what we need to do as a community on the state level to make change happen. That includes voting, lobbying, letter-writing and calling our local government officials. If they’re not willing to listen, we need to vote someone in who will.
I would like to state for the record that Mrs. Garriott has been a huge support this past month. We appreciate her presence and willingness to be involved.
We talked about hosting a townhall for the children in the school district. If we are going to make changes, we need to make sure that the children feel like they are being heard as well. By offering them a safe space to talk and offer their suggestions, we are helping to tailor programs to them that will actually work.
We talked about how we as parents and community members can get involved with helping without the school needing to hire anyone. There is a current federal program in place called WATCH DOGS in which men may sign up to patrol the halls of the elementary and intermediate schools. Why can’t we have something similar in the junior high and high school? Why can’t women be involved? There are plenty of parents wiling to volunteer their time to be the eyes and ears for the teachers and administrators so that we may take that off their plates. They have enough to deal with. We discussed how this could also be beneficial to the children who are the bullies. We cannot have enough positive adult influences around our children.
This led to a discussion of how we can help not only the victims of bullying and harassment but also the bullies themselves. We feel that rather than simply suspending them, we should instead work on trying to find ways to rehabilitate that type of behavior.
At the end of the day, we all want what’s best for our children. We understand that these things will take time to fix. We are committed to moving forward in healing and support of the children and educators in the ADM school district. It is my intention to go to the school board meeting on Monday, March 20 to discuss these minutes with the board and superintendent and to ask for the following items to be made a priority to get into place before the 2023-2024 school year:
1. Establish a PTA
2. Establish clear definitions of bullying, harassment and cyberbullying.
3. Establish clear discipline policies and how they’re going to be followed through upon.
4. Re-write the student handbook with clear, concise language to reflect the above.
5. Establish a firm chain of command to follow up on any issues that parents are aware of and can utilize in the event of issues during the school year.
6. Ask the school board and administration to continue with regular, full transparency regarding the efforts they are making to stop the bullying and harassment in the schools.
7. Put together a packet of information for parents that includes the policies in the handbook along with mental health resources they can reach out to if need be. Require it to be signed and sent in along with all the required registration paperwork.
I thank all of you who were able to attend the first in what is going to become a series of town halls to work on helping the mental health crisis and bullying in our school district. If anyone has suggestions or resources, please email me at email@example.com. I look forward to continuing to work with you all.