by J. Gregory Gerdel
After four or five boys at Main Street Middle School repeatedly told Adrienne Gil’s daughter that “she should kill herself,” Gil said the school responded according to its policy, but the policy doesn’t work. She and several other parents attended last week’s meeting of the Montpelier Roxbury Public Schools Board to talk about bullying in Montpelier schools. As a result, bullying and disruptive behavior will be at the forefront of discussions when the board convenes for its summer retreat.
Concerns raised by several parents during the regular board meeting on Wednesday brought to light ongoing misbehavior that the parents assert has not been appropriately or adequately addressed by school staff and administrators. While they expressed appreciation for the school’s current program for social and emotional well being, parents said it falls short of what students need to feel safe at school.
The meeting opened with a period for public comment. School Board Chair Jim Murphy explained that parents should be assured that the board will be listening intently to their concerns, but the board would not be responding to the issues raised at this meeting.
Gil fought back tears when she began to speak but was given a moment to regain her composure by her sister Jocelyn Wilschek, an attorney attending the meeting virtually. Gil explained that through the school year her daughter has been persistently bullied by four or five classmates, all boys, who have taunted her, not only saying that “she should kill herself” and that “she has no friends.” Gil said that the school has followed the policy in place, but the actions of the boys was deemed “inappropriate behavior” rather than harassment.
Gil also filed a police report about the incidents, but the interviews led to a “he said/she said” stalemate where the physical evidence was not sufficient. She noted that the harassment continued and that the perspective “this is just the way they are” expressed by a school administrator fails to address her concern.
Gil read from a letter her daughter wrote to Main Street Middle School staff. It concluded: “As teachers, it is your job to make sure your students feel safe in the classroom, and right now you are failing.”
Students targeted by bullying hesitate to speak out, knowing they will be called a “snitch” for reporting the abusive behavior, Gil said.
Single parent Jessica Robles who has two children at Union Elementary School and one at Main Street Middle School said her middle school daughter has dealt with an “aggressive” classmate who “makes her feel hopeless” and that she no longer trusts the school to deal with the situation.
“The behavioral team takes the student for a walk. But it seems to be a reward for him. He’s more disruptive when he returns,” Robles said.
That concern about the inadequacy of the current behavioral policy was echoed by other parents concerned that “at UES, students don’t see consequences for the troublemakers.”
Mel Houser, a board-certified family physician with a clinical focus on mental health for kids and adults, noted that one in five people learn and think differently than most. She commented that “Bullying is a risk factor. When the brain doesn’t feel safe there is no learning. Safety comes first.”
Tawnya Kristen, whose daughter will move to high school in the fall, said it is important to look at these misbehaviors, “male-led bullying” in particular, and the role that has played in the national context of increasing gun violence. “We need to deal with it strongly before we become one of those communities that is dealing with the horrific situations that other communities are dealing with right now,” she said.
Jessie Remick, whose wife Jill is on the school board, expressed concern that current policy isn’t working. “Disruptive kids come back and continue misbehavior. These are not kindergartners anymore. There have to be consequences and they have to take responsibility for their actions. Permissive behavior is dangerous,” he said.
Na An, an author who works at Vermont College of Fine Arts, said, “We need to make an investment in training to build back our community. I think there had been a different kind of vibe before the pandemic.” She would like to see “earmarks for a focus on the mental well-being of our children. I’d rather give up the track, as wonderful as that might be, because I know how important this is.”