Parents of current and former Key Peninsula Middle School students are demanding change, claiming bullying is an ongoing issue unchecked by school administration, notably Principal Jeri Goebel.
Though the outcry stems from a recent post on the Key Peninsula, Washington Facebook page that drew nearly 250 comments, some parents said they’ve reported bullying at the school for the last 16 years with little or no response at times.
Heidi Michaelson, whose son is a sixth grader at KPMS, wrote the original post: “When will KPMS finally do anything about the bullying problem they have?” She said her son was seriously assaulted in a hallway at KPMS in November.
Others posted similar experiences, some claiming their kids see violence and hear verbal abuse on school grounds regularly. Two parents told KP News their children searched online for suicide methods after being bullied.
Between the start of the school year and press time in mid-December, Peninsula School District received seven written reports of harassment, intimidation or bullying at KPMS — far beyond any other in the district (see sidebar). It’s the only PSD school that has suspended students for this type of behavior.
Leslie Livingston told KP News she had a daughter who went through KPMS and has another there now. Both experienced bullying at the school and she’s worried about her younger daughter getting into trouble. “I don’t want her getting so mad that she’ll hurt (her aggressor),” she said. “She may feel better at the moment, but that will likely haunt her.”
Some parents said that when the bullied students stand up for themselves they are the ones who get in trouble, not the bullies.
“My son got punched in the cafeteria and he responded physically,” said Valerie Brown. “He got lunch detention and the boy who punched him was at school the next day.” Brown said she tried to meet with Goebel multiple times to discuss the incident, but the meetings “went nowhere.”
Doreen, a KPMS parent who asked to be identified only by her first name, said “(My son got bullied) and felt he needed to stay home from school, and the school knows who did it and (the bullies) are still at school.”
“Some of these bullied students will be double-victimized. First by the aggressor and then if they feel they need to miss school,” said Dr. Sameer Hinduja, a professor of criminology at Florida Atlantic University and co-director of the Cyberbullying Research Center, when he was made aware of the KPMS complaints by KP News.
Though many parents told KP News their bullied child had missed school as a direct result of an incident, Assistant Superintendent Dan Gregory said he didn’t recall hearing that.
KP News requested interviews with Goebel, Gregory, and Risk and Compliance Manager Sara Hoover, who receives all written reports of bullying. The district consented only to Gregory.
When asked about complaints directed at Goebel, he said, “While I won’t talk about individual administrators, I do think our administrators are well trained.”
He believes the district has done a good job implementing its anti-bullying policy but acknowledged the district needs to do a better job communicating with parents when bullying happens. He did meet with Michaelson soon after her Facebook post went up in November.
“I think where the frustration comes from is what qualifies as bullying,” he said. “We really want to teach how to report various behaviors.”
The state Office of Superintendent of Public Instruction protocols note that “harassment, intimidation and bullying are closely related, but not identical,” and the OSPI website has definitions of each.
A mother of a former KPMS student who wanted to be identified only by her first name, Melany, said they moved to the KP because of a severe bullying situation at another school district.
“We weren’t (at KPMS) too long before my daughter got threatening messages and posts on social media,” she said. “The school said they can’t do anything about social media because it’s not their domain. My daughter’s phone got taken away from her because she was trying to call me to tell me, but those who made the post got to keep their phone.” Melany has since switched districts again.
Dr. Hinduja said schools are required to do something about cyberbullying.
“If what students experience in school is a byproduct (of online bullying or harassment), even if the bullying happens outside the school, the school is still required to do something.”
According to OSPI’s harassment, intimidation and bullying protocols, if an electronic message “has the effect of substantially interfering with a student’s education” it should be considered as one of the three.
“Schools need to be particularly sensitive to mental health issues (from cyberbullying),” said Dr. Hinduja.
Some parents of elementary school students are weighing their options as they make decisions on whether to send their kids to KPMS.
Brenda Smart and her husband, Aric, both attended PSD schools in the 1980s and 1990s. She has great memories of the “inspiring and passionate” teachers. They have a son who attends Evergreen Elementary, and after the bullying allegations at KPMS, she’s debating whether to let him attend or to homeschool him. “I want our children to be excited about learning and not worried about getting bullied,” she said.
Others have already pulled their kids from KPMS to homeschool or send to private school.
“Evergreen and Vaughn (elementary schools) are working so hard, because those teachers and administrators are on the same page,” said a mom of a former KPMS student, who asked to remain anonymous. “(KPMS) has no structure and no clear rules. It’s like a free-for-all.”
Some of the issues and claims of lack-of-action may be due to limited knowledge of how to report a safety concern. Most parents told KP News they called the school or sent emails with no response.
The school and district websites have a “Report a Concern” link at the bottom of the screen to report bullying and safety concerns, and OSPI protocols suggest parents should both call the school and file a written complaint online. Schools and the district are obligated to investigate all complaints, big or small, and must develop a report with a resolution.
Michaelson said she never filed a Report of Concern for her son’s case.
“Policies are just words written down on paper. They’re just symbolic unless you have people implementing these policies,” said Dr. Billi-Jo Grant, professor of statistics at Cal Poly State University. She’s also the Chief Operating Officer at McGrath Training Solutions, an organization that trains school districts to provide safer, more effective learning environments for students and staff.
Dr. Grant believes that’s why the investigation part is so important for schools to do. “If the school isn’t doing a prompt, thorough investigation, how do they know if it’s something minor or something egregious?” she said. “I think every concern (at KPMS) should have an outcome report with the steps they took to remediate.”
But Dr. Grant also knows it’s tough for schools. “They’re trained to be educators, not investigators. They’re dealing with daily fires and it’s not uncommon for the administrators to not be equipped to handle these investigations.”
Goebel is set to retire from KPMS at the end of the school year, but parents said they want more accountability from the school and district administrators in the short-term, and long-term changes like a complete culture overhaul at the school.
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