BY CHUCK VANDENBERG
FORT MADISON – A group of about 23 people met in Ivanhoe Park Thursday evening to discuss possible options to help solve issues associated with what they deemed as chronic bullying happening on and off school property.
The meeting was coordinated by Lisa Martinez, who said she wanted to hold the session for people to discuss possible solutions to the issues going on, highlighted by the recent suicide attempt of a 14-year old girl at the Fort Madison Middle School.
“I did send a letter to the superintendent telling her that I would love to volunteer my time in any way I could, but I haven’t heard anything back from anyone,” Martinez said.
“I went through the handbook and policy, but it doesn’t provide for anything the kids are doing good. Maybe some recognition for the kids doing goods things instead of bad. I also had an idea where I would like to do something where we had a weekly meeting where these kids can come and vent. The school is implementing a tip line and they put out a notice on that today. That’s great and a step in the right direction, but maybe we need to give the kids a place and have adults there and let the kids vent.”
Heather Byrd, pastor at Living Hope church, offered her space as a place for those meetings to take place.
“We run a recovery program for adults. We’re looking at doing at teen program and we have the space for it, but I don’t have the adult staff to do it, so I would need some help,” she said.
“There’s nothing for the kids in the middle school or high school to do. Being in this town I recognize the need. So I’m definitely open to any suggestions.”
One of the parents said her child tried to commit suicide two times while attending Fort Madison Middle School.
“As far as schools go, the schools need to be a bit more aggressive,” said Melissa Boyd of Fort Madison. “I read a little of what Erin Slater said and they talked about these two who went to seminars, but they need to be providing training to teachers and associates. Not just teachers – the associates have a lot of time with the students. Thankfully, this girl had a friend who reached out to someone.”
One of the parents in the group told a story of an incident with a child in the classroom. “Somebody out and out, in a middle school classroom said, ‘you’d be better off dead’ – and no one said or did anything when it was reported.”
Boyd said the school needs to be keeping a record of things that are said or reported.
Other parents pointed to the bullying being done by the privileged and popular kids, and cliques of kids, and said the parents and janitors and teachers want to be the kids’ friends instead of doing their jobs.
“Everyone keeps talking about the schools, most of this doesn’t happen at the schools. It was so different back in my day it happened on the playground,” said Heather Brown, another concerned parent and advocate.
“There’s two different apps and I won’t let my daughter have either one. If you go to that school you can belong to a Facebook group where you can say whatever you want, whenever you want, anonymously. So I randomly ask her for her phone, I’ve been doing it for years and I go through it to check what she’s doing and who she’s talking to.”
Several students were at the meeting as well, and their names will not be mentioned in this article. One of the students talked about the apps as a way for social bullying to take place.
Another student said they were punished for raising their voice in class to get someone to stop teasing them. The same student said bullying was so bad at school that they, too, attempted suicide.
“I was called the “re” word many times and was told that I suck and that I would be better off to go die in a hole.”
The student said the Middle School has a new program called PACK which is an acronym for Pride, Ambitious, Courageous, and Kindness and as a a part of the program students are supposed to use lunch time to speak well of each other and work on positive communications. But a parent said her daughter was made fun of because she was working the program.
Another student said the Yik Yak app is an anonymous comment app that some of the students are using as a vehicle for hateful comments, but it was not addressed with the school until one of the members of the administration got mentioned in one of the posts.
“The things I heard were that people would post about raping people and I wouldn’t use the app because I was afraid of what people were saying about me or my friends. But nothing was done… until someone said something about the administration, not the staff, but the administration,” the student said.
“Then we had a whole big talk about it, but not one thing happened until the administration was talked about.”
At Thursday’s candidate forum for Fort Madison Community School district’s board, the last question posed to the candidates was how the district should address bullying.
Current board member and candidate Tim Wondra said bullying has always gone on and steps need to be taken at all levels.
“We need to do a better job of fighting it. Superintendent (Erin) Slater and several assistant principals went to a state training program. Now we’re looking at an app where students can anonymously report bullying they’ve experienced and it will go to a company that will send it back to the administration. That’s a good program, but the kids need to use it. They need to step up.”
Candidate Gunther Anderson said the common response in schools is a zero tolerance policy.
“I like to look at things from every side and a common response for schools is zero tolerance. Zero tolerance too often gets interpreted as zero investigation and I know from personal experience when accusations are made and discipline is handed out – you might be punishing the victim and the bully is sitting there with a smirk,” Anderson said.
“They do not comprehend the harm they are doing. It’s not cruelty, it’s ignorance. They need guidance, but at the same time you can’t single them out for guidance. I’m wondering if a preemptive program started very young is the way,” Anderson said.
Renee Ehlers asked her fifth grade son if anyone had talked to him about what had happened and said he didn’t know what had happened.
“We put so much emphasis on what the school needs to do, but we need to think about what we as parents need to do. The school is taking a lot of heat right now and I want to say I commend them for the statements they are putting out there to make people more comfortable.”
Current board member and candidate Gayla Young said the school is on it.
“Whatever it is, we can’t rest our head on the pillow at night until we can say our kids are safe from being bullied, our staff is safe from being bullied, our neighbors are safe from bullied. We are on it until bullying stops and it won’t ever stop, but can we make it less,” she said.
Candidate Jillian Troxel said social media has changed what bullying looks like compared to what it used to be.
“I sympathize with teachers because they do what they can to eliminate the social media impact in the classroom but you think about the time between the class or the hours outside the classroom. And they aren’t talking – they are texting and people will text things they never say to your face. It’s whole different world out there.”