Although the issues are not always linked, two separate reports of attempted suicides at Baldwin County public schools last week, coupled with an additional report of a third student taking their own life late last month, happened just as the school system is preparing to host its second annual “Shatter the Silence” event. Last year, it focused on suicide. This year, the subject is bullying.
The suicide attempts were reported at Fairhope Intermediate School and Spanish Fort Middle School. The 12-year-old student who died was enrolled at Daphne East Elementary School.
In interviews with several Baldwin County Public School System (BCPSS) employees, bullying and youth suicide were referred to as a “societal problem” multiple times, indicating that along with new policies to address academic stressors and mental health, there are also talking points. But perhaps the takeaway is while there are more tools than ever to combat the problems on campus, it’s one that simply can’t be solved by teachers, administrators and support staff alone.
Indeed, information provided by the school system calls attention to larger, more complex issues, primarily the diverse demographics and socio-economics of today’s students, coupled with changing technology and a breakdown of traditional nuclear families. Bullying is no longer just a face-to-face act between two or more people, but more often obscured by social media and rapidly shared among large groups, according to Danielle Ludlow, a member of the BCPSS’ communications team.
“We have two issues that we’re confronting,” she wrote. “Number one, this is a national issue that we are simply a small part of, but we are fighting for our own local community and the social media impact of this cannot be overstated.”
But in addition to the measures taken by the school system, Ludlow and others said, students themselves are encouraged to take a more proactive role.
“Many students are not equipped with coping mechanisms, they do not understand what to do in situations,” Ludlow wrote. “Kids need to learn what to do and how to handle themselves.”
Fairhope Middle School Principal Angie Hall agreed. An administrator for more than 14 years of her 30-year career in education, Hall said bullying has not increased or decreased over time, but it has been amplified by social media.
“A lot of it is on social media,” she said. “At the middle school age, with the cell phone availability, the children of this day and time are going to use whatever they have at hand. I think we have beefed up enforcement some and I know Fairhope Middle School is doing as much as we can to help … but we’ve seen more of it.
“What I truly feel we need more of, as a principal and a parent of two boys, is more coping skills … ” Hall continued. “I can remember my mom and dad telling me to defend myself. We don’t back down but we don’t go starting anything either. A bully will continue to come after you, they don’t back off.”
Hall said in her experience, anyone can be a victim.
“Really it doesn’t have a certain nature,” she said. “Maybe some kids are too heavy or too skinny, football players or cheerleaders can be bullied too. If you’re popular you can have bullies, if you’re unpopular you can have bullies. Children can be really hateful sometimes and bullies go after the weaker link or even the child who tries to do well … the bully can sometimes be the smallest child at the school.”
His daughter was one of the most popular girls in her school, according to the father of an alleged bullying victim who filed a federal lawsuit against the Baldwin County Board of Education (BCBOE) last year. The complaint states the bullying started at a middle school shortly after the 2016 school year began, when a male student “made up some horrible rumors of a sexual nature” about the girl. It continued even after Christmas break, leading to “devastating public humiliation” for the girl, who allegedly “suffered extreme emotional and psychological distress” as a result.
While the family of the alleged victim requested to remain anonymous — they say many people know who they are anyway, but their daughter has since changed schools and turned a corner emotionally — the girl’s father did speak openly about the incident and its repercussions.
“[She] was very pretty, athletic, energetic … what happened was that a boy-girl relationship that lasted five days ended — she just turned 13 and was in eighth grade — he told all the other boys to say they slept with her,” the father said. “A few weeks later she’s dating the quarterback and it became a jealousy issue, so [the bully] said she sent naked pictures to everyone.”
There was no physical evidence to back up the alleged bully’s claim, but the rumors spread around the school quickly and took on a life of their own. Within weeks, the girl had been ostracized by her own friends and the stress of it began to manifest itself physically.
“She had swelling, she was vomiting, crying, hiding out … someone poured water over her head at the lunchroom table,” the father said.
Noting “there’s no legal action to file against a 13 year old,” the father took the school system to court, alleging complaints to administrators went unresolved.
“The principal knew but didn’t address it,” he said. “We sat down with a resource officer and found out the boys’ parents knew nothing about it. We wrote complaints to the school board, then filed a zone variance to go to [a different school], but they wouldn’t let her. She missed one Scantron question and couldn’t enroll in the virtual school.”
Eventually, they brought the action to court in August 2018, seeking damages under Title IX. In separate motions filed by different law firms on the same day last October, Superintendent Eddie Tyler and the school board defendants separately sought to dismiss the case, arguing their own protections under Title IX. Tyler sought dismissal based protections for individual school officials, while the board argued the plaintiff failed to state a claim under Title IX, which also prohibits punitive actions.
Broadly, Title IX prohibits gender discrimination in education, including sexual harassment. But in June of this year, U.S. Magistrate Judge Sonja Bivins determined the complaint against the BCBOE did not meet the burdens of a Title IX action and recommended the case be dismissed. In July, U.S. District Court Judge Kristi Dubose accepted the recommendation.
“The instances of sexually based rumor-mongering occuring over a period of months … while no doubt offensive and humiliating, are more akin to the ‘simple acts of teasing and name-calling among school children’ that courts have found not to rise to the level of actionable harassment,” Bivins wrote.
Citing case law, Bivins also noted: “If liability were appropriate in these circumstances, every time a student was subject to a repeated name-calling by his or her callous peers, with an occasional eruption into physical contact causing no serious injury, parents would be entitled to pull their child out of public school and place him or her in private school at the school district’s expense.”
Chip Herrington, the plaintiff’s attorney, expressed displeasure with the order, but admitted there is little actionable legal cause to pursue bullying complaints at the federal level.
“In a nutshell, I don’t think the laws and the current state of the law is sufficient to deal with this problem, which I think is growing,” he said. “It’s a very difficult burden to meet.”
But that’s not to say the state isn’t trying. Last May, Gov. Kay Ivey signed the Jamari Terrell Williams Student Harassment Act into law. Named after a 10-year-old Montgomery student who took his own life after falling victim to bullying, the intent of the act was to “provide for the adoption of policies in public school systems to prevent the bullying of students … and that the State Department of Education develop, and each local board of education adopt, procedural policies to manage and possibly prevent these acts against any student by another student or students based on the characteristics of a student.”
Using a guide subsequently developed by the State Board of Education, the BCBOE has complied with the act by updating and implementing its own harassment and bullying policies “in an effort to ensure that no student is subjected to bullying, violence, threats of violence or intimidation by any other student.”
As the school system’s intervention supervisor, Patrice Davis is one of many administrators tasked with ensuring the county’s compliance with the act. She organized the first “Shatter the Silence” event about suicide last year and put the focus on bullying for the Oct. 10 event.
“Bullying is not just an issue for the BCPSS, but it’s a nationwide issue,” she said. “‘Shatter the Silence’ is an effort to spread awareness and address it … we aim to to get everyone involved — parents, neighbors, friends — and make them aware of not only what bullying is, but what the school system is doing to address it. There are also community resources and laws. Not only can students be disciplined on campus, but if it warrants it, there are some [criminal laws].”
By the policy
As a result of the Jamari Terrell Williams Student Harassment Act, the BCBOE and school boards across the state adopted and updated anti-bullying and anti-harassment policies. Baldwin County’s, which is included in the 2019 Student and Parent Handbook, was adapted from a draft written by the state school board. It prohibits bullying, violence, threats of violence and intimidation.
By definition, bullying can be: placing a student in reasonable fear of harm to his or her person or damage to his or her property; having the effect of substantially interfering with the educational performance, opportunities or benefits of a student; having the effect of substantially disrupting or interfering with the orderly operation of the school; having the effect of creating a hostile environment in the school, on school property, on a school bus or at a school-sponsored function; or having the effect of being sufficiently severe, persistent or pervasive enough to create an intimidating, threatening or abusive educational environment for a student.
It also includes protections against bullying based on race, sex, religion, nationality, disability, marital status, sexual orientation and gender identity.
Complaints of bullying, according to the policy, must be made on a board-approved complaint form, signed by the student alleging the violation or the student’s parent or legal guardian. The forms remain confidential, but users must disclose information including the alleged bully’s name, the victim’s name, details of the incident and the names of any witnesses.
Principals at each school or their designees are charged with the investigation and adjudication of bullying complaints at their discretion, within the terms of the policy.
Depending on the severity, bullying may be considered a Class I violation of the Student Code of Conduct, the least serious type, with sanctions including parent-teacher conferences, on-campus suspension, referrals to peer mediation or counselors, temporary removal from the classroom or adherence to a student contract, among other remedies.
But it can also rise to a Class II or Class III violation if it becomes moderate to extreme, especially if it contains physical threats or actual violence. More serious violations may result in off-campus suspension, reassignment to an alternative school, expulsion or arrest. The Baldwin County Board of Education has teamed up with local law enforcement agencies in recent years to provide resource officers at each school who, among other things, may make arrests on criminal charges.
Sheriff Hoss Mack will speak about the legal perspectives at the “Shatter the Silence” event Thursday night. The event will also feature addresses from Patrice Davis, State Rep. Alan Baker, District Attorney Robert Wilters and a keynote speech from Monique Davis, the mother of Jamari Terrell Williams.
Doors open at 5:30 p.m. at the Daphne United Methodist Church Community Life Center. The event is free and light refreshments will be provided. For more information search for “ShatterTheSilenceAL” on Facebook.
“We still have work to do, but when we have these kinds of events, I think it keeps the message in the forefront in their minds,” Davis said. “Anyone and everyone can help — whether it’s being a friend to someone who may be isolated or sitting by themselves, or if you see someone picked on you can stand up for them — but there is never a bad time to talk about bullying and why we need to be respectful and kind to each other.”
“[Bullying is] a terrible thing, but something we have to concentrate more and more on for our children because we are living in a different time,” she said. “Some of the same things are happening as when I was in school in the ’80s, but a letter or a note didn’t get around as fast as an email or a Facebook message or Snapchat. I think we have beefed [prevention and enforcement] up some and I know Fairhope Middle School is doing as much as we can to help with that situation, but I do a lot of praying for our children, I do.”
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