Story by Scott Humphrey, News Director, 105.7 News
In this latest installment of “Everyone Has A Story”, this subject touches on a painful process many students in Cumberland County, the state and in the nation experience, bullying.
This story is to tell you about one brave young girls battle with it and bring to light the harsh realizations of this problem in schools.
Rhiley is presently in the 6th grade at Martin Elementary School in Crossville.
When she started this school year, the bullying against her by several students also began.
“They called me names and said I was a mistake,” said Rhiley. “They did this in person and on social media.”
The pressure continued to rise until Halloween night when Rhiley attempted suicide by overdose. She left a note for her mother who was at work at the time and also left a voice message on her mother’s phone.
Rhiley was taken to a hospital in Chattanooga and survived the incident.
The bullying did not stop even after Rhiley was fighting for her life. The name calling continued even with her not being at the school.
Her mother, Cassie, spoke with the parents of the students involved in the bullying of her daughter. “The school did not notify them at first of what happened,” said Cassie.
“I went to the school to file a complaint after Rhiley was discharged from the hospital. It was like they showed no remorse for what happened. They did not even ask how she was doing. They told me it would be handled,” said Cassie.
Once Rhiley got out of the hospital, she was placed on virtual learning by the school for only 30 days. “I am looking at her doing virtual learning for the rest of the school year after the school told me it was just for 30 days. I am looking into homeschooling virtual options for Rhiley,” said Cassie.
In interviewing Rhiley and Cassie for this story, I asked Rhiley how she was doing in school despite the bullying. She has grades in the 90’s in science but struggles in math.
Her next statement was powerful.
“I know I am not a mistake. I just don’t understand why these students are mean to me,” said Rhiley.
Rhiley appears to be a normal elementary school student. In the interview with her, she told me one of her favorite television shows is “Stranger Things” on Netflix. She is shy at first but once you start talking with her, you see a very bright young lady who has a strong future ahead of her.
Rhiley’s life was nearly lost because of a serious problem.
So what has been done up to now regarding bullying?
The Cumberland County School System would not issue a comment on the incident other than it is being looked into and the policy from the state regarding it is being followed.
The Tennessee School Board Association handed down a policy regarding the issue that nearly all school systems in the state adopted.
Policy 6.304 in the manual of the Cumberland County School System is as follows with key parts in bold:
The Cumberland County Board of Education has determined that a safe, civil, and supportive environment in school is necessary for students to learn and achieve high academic standards. In order to maintain that environment, acts of bullying, cyber-bullying, discrimination, harassment, hazing or any other victimization of students, based on any actual or perceived traits or characteristics, are prohibited.
This policy shall be disseminated annually to all school staff, students, and parents/guardians.
This policy shall cover employees, employees’ behaviors, students and students’ behaviors while on school property, at any school-sponsored activity, on school-provided equipment or transportation, or at any official school bus stop. If the act takes place off school property or outside of a school-sponsored activity, this policy is in effect if the conduct is directed specifically at a student or students and has the effect of creating a hostile educational environment or otherwise creating a substantial disruption to the education environment or learning process. Building administrators are responsible for educating and training their respective staff and students as to the definition and recognition of discrimination/harassment.
The director of schools shall develop forms and procedures to ensure compliance with the requirements of this policy and state law.
Bullying is defined as unwanted, aggressive behavior that involves a real or perceived power imbalance. The behavior is repeated, or has the potential to be repeated, over time. The imbalance of power involves the use of physical strength, access to embarrassing information, or popularity to control or harm others.
- Physically harming a student or damaging a student’s property;
- Knowingly placing a student or students in reasonable fear of physical harm to the student or damage to the student’s property;
- Causing emotional distress to a student or students; or
- Creating a hostile educational environment.
Bullying, intimidation, or harassment may also be unwelcome conduct based on a protected class (race, nationality, origin, color, gender, age, disability, religion) that is severe, pervasive, or persistent and creates a hostile environment.
Cyber-bullying – A form of bullying undertaken through the use of electronic devices. Electronic devices include, but are not limited to, telephones, cellular phones or other wireless telecommunication devices, text messaging, emails, social networking sites, instant messaging, videos, web sites or fake profiles.
Hazing – An intentional or reckless act by a student or group of students that is directed against any other student(s) that endangers the mental or physical health or safety of the student(s) or that induces or coerces a student to endanger his/her mental or physical health or safety. Coaches and other employees of the school district shall not encourage, permit, condone or tolerate hazing activities.
COMPLAINTS AND INVESTIGATIONS
Any individual who has knowledge that may constitute a violation of this policy shall promptly report such behavior to the principal/designee.
While reports may be made anonymously, an individual’s need for confidentiality must be balanced with obligations to cooperate with police investigations or legal proceedings, to provide due process to the accused, to conduct a thorough investigation or to take necessary actions to resolve a complaint, and the identity of parties and witnesses may be disclosed in appropriate circumstances to individuals with a need to know.
The principal/designee at each school shall be responsible for investigating and resolving complaints. Once a complaint is received, the principal/designee shall initiate an investigation within forty-eight (48) hours of receipt of the report. If an investigation is not initiated within forty-eight (48) hours, the principal/designee shall provide the director of schools with appropriate documentation detailing the reasons why the investigation was not initiated within the required timeframe.
The principal/designee shall notify the parent/legal guardian when a student is involved in an act of discrimination, harassment, intimidation, bullying, or cyber-bullying. The principal/designee shall provide information on district counseling and support services. Students involved in an act of discrimination, harassment, intimidation, bullying, or cyber-bullying shall be referred to the appropriate school counselor by the principal/designee when deemed necessary.
The principal/designee is responsible for determining whether an alleged act constitutes a violation of this policy, and such act shall be held to violate this policy when it meets one of the following conditions:
- It places the student in reasonable fear or harm for the student’s person or property;
- It has a substantially detrimental effect on the student’s physical or mental health
It has the effect of substantially interfering with the student’s ability to participate in or benefit from the services, activities, or privileges provided by a school.
Upon the determination of a violation, the principal/designee shall conduct a prompt, thorough, and complete investigation of each alleged incident. All investigations shall be completed and appropriate intervention taken within twenty (20) calendar days from the receipt of the initial report.7 If the investigation is not complete or intervention has not taken place within twenty (20) calendar days, the principal/designee shall provide the director of schools with appropriate documentation detailing the reasons why the investigation has not been completed or the appropriate intervention has not taken place.4 Within the parameters of the federal Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act (FERPA) at 20 U.S.C. § 1232g,9 a written report on the investigation will be delivered to all involved parties and to the Director of Schools.
RESPONSE AND PREVENTION
School administrators shall consider the nature and circumstances of the incident, the age of the violator, the degree of harm, previous incidences or patterns of behavior, or any other factors, as appropriate to properly respond to each situation.
A substantiated charge against an employee shall result in disciplinary action up to and including termination. The employee may appeal this decision by contacting the Federal Rights Coordinator.
Now, look at this next line of the policy closely
A substantiated charge against a student may result in corrective or disciplinary action up to and including suspension. The student may appeal this decision in accordance with disciplinary policies and procedures.
The policy clearly states suspension is only an option, not required, for a student that takes part in bullying.
When a complaint is filed alleging a violation of this policy where there is physical harm or the threat of physical harm to a student or a student’s property, the principal/designee of each middle school, junior high school, or high school shall report the findings and any disciplinary actions taken to the director of schools and the chair of the board of education.
By July 1 of each year, the director of schools/designee shall prepare a report of all of the bullying cases brought to the attention of school officials during the prior academic year. The report shall also indicate how the cases were resolved and/or the reasons they are still pending. This report shall be presented to the board of education at its regular July meeting, and it shall be submitted to the state department of education by August 1.
RETALIATION AND FALSE ACCUSATIONS
Retaliation against any person who reports or assists in any investigation of an act alleged in this policy is prohibited. The consequences and appropriate remedial action for a person who engages in retaliation shall be determined by the administrator after consideration of the nature, severity, and circumstances of the act. False accusations accusing another person of having committed an act prohibited under this policy are prohibited. The consequences and appropriate remedial action for a person found to have falsely accused another may range from positive behavioral interventions up to and including suspension and expulsion.
That concludes the Cumberland County, Tennessee school system policy on bullying.
Now let’s look at other systems.
In Clinton County, Kentucky (just over the Tennessee/Kentucky border), their policy regarding bullying is: Students who violate this policy shall be subject to appropriate disciplinary action. It does not indicate what action would be taken in the policy.
In school systems in Georgia, Students in grades six through twelve found to have committed the offense of bullying for the third time in a school year shall be assigned to an alternative school through appropriate due process by disciplinary hearing officers, panels, or tribunals
So the point in comparing policies regarding bullying in these three areas is this: they are different and lack uniformity to protect victims.
Every student deserves to be treated with respect and have a safe and civil learning environment. Furthermore, Tenn. Code Ann. § 49-6-4503 requires that every school district have a policy prohibiting bullying and harassment as well as procedures for investigating reports of bullying and harassment.
Now let’s take a look at the sample from the State of Tennessee regarding the issue for school systems:
Consequences and appropriate remedial actions for anyone who commits one or more acts of harassment, bullying, or other acts of violent behavior may range from positive behavioral interventions up to and including suspension or expulsion, as set forth in the Board of Education’s approved code of conduct.
So as you can see, the problem with the “lack of teeth” in the policy regarding consequences for bullying is in the states code that are handed down to county school systems.
Now let’s look at statistics for this problem:
- One out of every five (20.2%) students report being bullied (National Center for Educational Statistics, 2019 )
- A higher percentage of male than of female students report being physically bullied (6% vs. 4%), whereas a higher percentage of female than of male students reported being the subjects of rumors (18% vs. 9%) and being excluded from activities on purpose (7% vs. 4%) (National Center for Educational Statistics, 2019 )
- 41% of students who reported being bullied at school indicated that they think the bullying would happen again (National Center for Educational Statistics, 2019 )
- Of those students who reported being bullied, 13% were made fun of, called names, or insulted; 13% were the subject of rumors; 5% were pushed, shoved, tripped, or spit on; and 5% were excluded from activities on purpose (National Center for Educational Statistics, 2019 )
- A slightly higher portion of female than of male students report being bullied at school (24% vs. 17%) (National Center for Educational Statistics, 2019 )
- Bullied students reported that bullying occurred in the following places: the hallway or stairwell at school (43%), inside the classroom (42%), in the cafeteria (27%), outside on school grounds (22%), online or by text (15%), in the bathroom or locker room (12%), and on the school bus (8%) (National Center for Educational Statistics, 2019 )
- 46% of bullied students report notifying an adult at school about the incident (National Center for Educational Statistics, 2019 )
- School-based bullying prevention programs decrease bullying by up to 25% (McCallion & Feder, 2013 )
- The reasons for being bullied reported most often by students include physical appearance, race/ethnicity, gender, disability, religion, sexual orientation (National Center for Educational Statistics, 2019 )
- There is a strong association between bullying and suicide-related behaviors, but this relationship is often mediated by other factors, including depression, violent behavior, and substance abuse (Reed, Nugent, & Cooper, 2015 )
- Students who report frequently bullying others and students who report being frequently bullied are at increased risk for suicide-related behavior (Centers for Disease Control, 2014 )
- A meta-analysis found that students facing peer victimization are 2.2 times more likely to have suicide ideation and 2.6 times more likely to attempt suicide than students not facing victimization.
- Students who are both bullied and engage in bullying behavior are the highest risk group for adverse outcomes.
A parent’s worst nightmare turned reality is the loss of a child. The state must take action to strengthen the laws and school policies regarding bullying and the consequences for those who participate in the intentional causing pain and discomfort to a student.
Rhiley’s story is one of survival but it is one of hope that officials will now look at this problem and take a more serious approach in dealing with bullying and harassment in the schools.
Rhiley’s story is far from the first one of its kind reported in the Cumberland County School System. There have been others.
If you are a student and are being bullied, harassed or simply do not feel safe, the first thing to do is report it to a principal, teacher or counselor at the school. Secondly, tell your parents what is going on that way they can follow up with the school. Third, know that no one on this planet is a mistake as Rhiley was called.
Everyone has a purpose and especially with children, their hopes and dreams should be achieved and not cut down.
“School administrators can’t say it’s up to the parents. Parents can’t say it’s up to the teachers. Teachers can’t say it’s not their job. And kids can’t say, “I was too afraid to tell.” Every single one of us has to play our role if we’re serious about putting an end to the madness. We are all responsible. We must be.” – Megan Kelley Hall (author).
And I will close this special “Everyone Has a Story” with a small message to the ones bullying others our there:
“What if the kid you bullied at school, grew up, and turned out to be the only surgeon who could save your life?”