Home Schools Students, Parents Describe Bullying in Local Schools

Students, Parents Describe Bullying in Local Schools

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photo of brick school building taken from a hill above the school.
Union Elementary School. Photo by Carla Occaso.
Editor’s Note: This story is the first in a series about bullying in local schools and how administrators, board members, parents, community members, and students are handling the situation. This story recounts the experiences of local students and families who encountered these behaviors and their attempts to address them. 

As summer starts, parents and students search for solutions to bullying in local schools. While the school year wound down in June, camps, swimming, and part-time jobs were on the horizon for many students. And for some, summer plans include therapy to recover from bullying and harassment suffered during the academic year.

The Bridge tried to reach several school officials for their perspective on this story, but were unsuccessful given the proximity to the end of the school year and multiple retiring administrators. 

When Your Friend Plans to Kill You

One student, Izzy Shrout, discussed their experience a few years ago at Montpelier’s Main Street Middle School. When Shrout and a friend developed crushes on the same person, Shrout said, things deteriorated quickly and the friend created a plan to kill Shrout.

“It was like a full written plan with, like, before, during and after, and she had like a weapon and everything,” Shrout said. Shrout and their mother went to the school with the information, but, Shrout said, nothing was done until they made a police report. Shrout said the school then took action, but only to keep them in separate classes, and have teachers monitor the hallways. Shrout says they still found themselves alone several times with the student, and once ended up sitting near the student in class. Shrout says their request to change classes was denied.

The situation led to “many panic attacks, and a lot of very scary feelings in an environment that should not have danger,” Shrout said. Eventually, the student and Shrout were told one would have to leave, and the other student transferred, Shrout said. 

Targeted by a Group of Boys

Adrienne Gil, too, described her daughter Izzy Gil’s experience being targeted by a group of boys at Main Street Middle School this April and May. 

“She’s autistic. She has ADHD. She’s an amazing person,” Gil said, adding that  Izzy reported that the boys, one a prior friend, called the eighth-grader and sent her videos saying she was stupid, autistic, had no friends, and should die by suicide. They taunted Izzy, Gil said, by creating memes with Izzy’s face. When they ridiculed Izzy at recess, Gil said, “she was trying very, very hard to take it on herself,” asking the boys to stop.

Gil said Izzy talked to friends and the school’s counselor and requested to switch from classes shared with the boys, a request Gil says was denied. Finally, Gil said, Izzy called her one day requesting to leave school early. Only “after three hours of just gut-wrenching, uncontrollable sobbing” did Izzy tell her mother what had been happening at Main Street Middle School, Gil said. 

Much of the behavior occurred via Snapchat, and Izzy had saved a couple of screenshots and videos, which were sent to the school, Gil said, prompting a weeklong investigation. The school concluded the incidents amounted to “inappropriate behavior,” Gil said, adding she and her daughter were told “it’s just the way these boys are.”

“Izzy almost fell over in her chair” at that comment, Gil said. 

The school asked Izzy to write a “safety plan, which honestly is a joke,” Gil said. Izzy did, but the family never heard further about this, Gil said, and the boys’ behavior continued. Izzy graduated eighth grade on June 9.

Racist Comments and a Stick

Another account came from a Montpelier parent who is “kind of done with what’s going on” and wanted to remain anonymous. This person, “W,” said several years ago, a boy approached her child outside Kellogg-Hubbard Library, called the child a racist name, threw an object, then hit W’s child with a stick, leaving welts. The hurt child called W, who phoned the police. The boy attended a different school, and W says she was told the boy would not return to Kellogg-Hubbard and his life would be ruined if action were taken against him. There was no acknowledgement the behavior was racist despite the boy’s use of racist language, W said. 

The school did not initially get involved because the incident did not occur there, W said. But then the boy enrolled at W’s child’s school. W said the school had been given his name in connection with the library incident the previous year but never contacted W when he enrolled. W noted she spoke to school administrators, but was given “a runaround.” W, a woman of color, resorted to bringing in her ex-partner, a white man, to try to achieve resolution. When asked what the school did to help, W responded, “nothing much.” The child who had this experience now attends Montpelier High School. W’s younger child has another year at Main Street Middle School.

Attacked and Hospitalized

Alarming youth behavior is happening in surrounding towns as well. On June 13, a 14-year-old student was attacked after school on the Barre Bike Path, according to local police. The boy was seriously injured, transported to UVM Medical Center, and later released. The alleged attackers are also children per local reports and have reportedly been charged, one with aggravated assault, the other simple assault and disorderly conduct. At the following week’s school board meeting, the boy’s mother said the incident had been “brewing” for months.

No Consequences for Bullies

The outcomes of school bullying investigations are confidential, but families have noted what they see as a lack of consequences for such behavior. Shrout said, with instances prior to the one where a student threatened their life, “I would go to guidance counselors, vice principal, the principal, teachers, and they just say fill out a form and we’ll eventually get to it.” Shrout believed such meetings involved telling students to stop, then releasing them, but that without repercussions, the approach did not work.

“So,” Shrout said, “when my life was being threatened, I went to my mom because I knew the school wouldn’t do anything about it. And my mom would do something.”

Gil, too, noted what she believed was a lack of consequences for the boys who targeted Izzy. The behavior continued post-investigation, Gil said, and they attended field trips and eighth-grade graduation. 

“[Izzy] missed an entire week of school because she felt unsafe in the school environment, and they missed nothing,” Gil said. 

Gil noted, “They have zero consequences for their behaviors.”

W, too, pointed to what she sees as a lack of consequences. “Maybe do a school suspension, I don’t know,” W said, “but there’s no consequences.” W noted policy training is required in the workplace, including information about the consequences of breaking rules. 

“So why can’t they do that in the school?” W asked, suggesting outside experts educate staff and students about bullying.

Vermont state statutes dictate the handling of harassment, hazing, and bullying in schools, noted Barre Unified Union School District Superintendent Chris Hennessey. Jim Murphy, chairperson of the Montpelier Roxbury School District Board of School Directors, echoed this, saying the board sets statute-based district policy, then translates policy into language families can understand and act on. Investigations into such behavior must remain confidential, Murphy noted. 

But for some families, acting on the information they had did not produce the anticipated results.

“They don’t want to say it’s bullying,” said W. “They want to say it’s [a] behavioral problem or this or that.”

In Izzy’s case, Gil said the school concluded the boys’ actions constituted “inappropriate behavior.”

“They have a policy, and you can’t change the state policy; it’s very hard to do that,” Gil said. “But what is their definition of harassment and bullying? Like this was, in my mind, clearly harassment, but they said that the evidence was not strong enough.”

“I would like the school to take stern action against bullying,” W said, “and not sweep it under the carpet, or not label it as something else, and not support the victim.”

Long Term Effects?

Parents are also concerned about bullying’s longer-term effects. Gil said she and her husband remain “very concerned about [Izzy’s] mental health” and got her counseling. But, Gil says, she believes Izzy “is going to have a hard time trusting adults in the future because they did a really terrible job of protecting her and she’s like, they’re not going to do anything. No change will ever happen.”

And, said Gil, she believes students who mistreat peers are also harmed by what she views as a lack of consequences. “They’re being told it’s just the way they are, it’s just their behavior,” said Gil, adding her belief that “it’s going to continue until they’re in adulthood, and who knows what’s going to happen.”

“I’ve encountered a lot of racism, from, I’m sure, these people who have bullied kids when they were young,” W said. “I have people mock my accent, mock my skin color, even sexual harassment as a woman, because they think that I’m a brown girl, submissive woman. This all depends on your formative years. If they are taught that bullying and mocking and saying mean things is okay, they keep doing it when they go into adulthood.”

Unable to Reach School Officials

Retiring Montpelier High School Vice Principal Jennifer Wall Howard declined to speak with the reporter and suggested speaking with incoming Principal Jason Gingold; an email to retiring Principal Renee DeVore received an auto-reply stating she had retired and directing questions to Gingold. Attempts to reach Gingold by email and phone were unsuccessful. An email to Montpelier’s Main Street Middle School Principal Katie Barea received an out-of-office autoreply, with the suggestion to contact incoming Principal Julie Conrad; an email to Vice Principal Jess Wells generated a similar autoreply. Attempts to reach Conrad were unsuccessful as of press time.

Look for Part Two in this series coming in the July 20, 2022 issue of The Bridge.

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