Grace Mitchell was a second grader at Rosa Parks Elementary School on Redmond Ridge last year. Her family had recently moved from Texas since her mother got a new job in the area.
The school year started well, but it didn’t last long. Laurena Mitchell, Grace’s mother, noticed her daughter coming home with bruises on her legs and a less-than-cheerful disposition. Grace denied anything was wrong, but her mother knew something was happening.
And she was right.
It was around Halloween when the bullying began.
“It started with kicking,” 9-year-old Grace said.
Another girl from Grace’s class began kicking her when the teacher’s back was turned.
“She would sit across from me in music and kick me when the teacher wasn’t looking,” she said. “She would kick me at recess.”
Grace said they were good friends until one day the girl started being mean to her. Grace would tell her to please stop but to no avail.
Grace told her teacher what was happening, and the two girls were referred to speak with a school counselor. According to Grace, the counselor told them to stay away from each other.
It didn’t work. Grace said her teacher did not strictly enforce the separation between her and the other girl, and the bullying continued.
Grace told her mother what was happening. Mitchell immediately spoke with Grace’s teacher, Stephanie Escamilla, and requested the girls be separated during class and recess.
“When I brought it up to the teacher, the teacher let me know that the children had been in counseling due to disagreements, but physical harm was never discussed,” Mitchell said. “I was alarmed — the school had never contacted me to let me know that my child was seeing a counselor.”
Mitchell brought the issue to the school’s principal, Melissa Doering. She said Doering told her she was aware the students were in counseling but was told it was Grace who was inflicting physical harm.
“Being that my child is quite timid, I couldn’t imagine this being the case,” Mitchell said. “The teacher assured me that the children would be separated and she would keep an eye on them.”
Not just a prank
As the school year continued, so did the bullying. It reached a climax in late April when Grace’s year-long aggressor and another student put hand sanitizer in Grace’s cookie.
Grace had an almond butter-filled cookie. The two other girls took the cookie, scooped out the almond butter filling, replaced it with hand sanitizer and coated the cookie with the almond butter. The girls told Grace to eat the cookie. When she said it tasted wrong, the girls encouraged her, telling her nothing was wrong with it and to keep eating the cookie.
In an email to Grace’s teacher, dated April 26 — the day after the incident — Mitchell said she wanted something to be done.
“This is not funny, nor acceptable. The girls need to understand how serious this is and that someone can get deathly ill with these types of pranks,” Mitchell wrote in the email. “I can’t imagine second graders blackmailing one another or anything else along those lines.”
Doering responded to Mitchell’s email on May 2.
“We have been following up with the girls regarding this incident, and I have also been made aware that there are ongoing friendship challenges the girls have been grappling with since very early in the school year,” Doering said in the email. “I also understand that at various points throughout the school year, the dynamics of the friendship have shifted. At various points throughout the year there has been a two-against-one dynamic, with each of the girls feeling like she was the one targeted or left out.”
Doering continued that the Leyla Maclean, the counselor, and Escamilla have communicated with the girls that they are on a friendship break both in the classroom and out at recess.
“As such, they should not be choosing to work together in class, and they are to remain apart during recess. Ms. Maclean has also facilitated a conversation about who else each girl can play with during recess,” Doering wrote in the email.
Doering closed by encouraging Mitchell to continue having conversations with Grace regarding how to handle difficult relationships.
“I would also appreciate your support in encouraging her to report to a teacher immediately if she has a concern about her own or the safety of others,” Doering wrote in the email.
A lost cause
According to Grace, she told her teacher and the principal of the repeated bullying by the other girls and nothing happened. Separation was not enforced.
“They kept coming up to me,” Grace said. “I tried to make them stop. I would tell them to please stop pushing me and they should treat others the way they want to be treated.”
At the close of the school year, Mitchell chaperoned a class nature walk.
She said she noticed that the other girls tended to drift a little to Grace while on the rug and also walking out to the learning site.
“I was particularly troubled when we were told the children were to be broken into groups and Grace asked [Escamilla] about keeping her separated from [the other girls,]” Mitchell said in an email to Escamilla on June 7. “I didn’t expect to hear that they seemed to be getting along and could probably work together for the sake of the exercise.”
Mitchell continued that the other girl was “still kicking Grace in music class,” “still stepping on Grace’s jacket on purpose,” and “still calling Grace names.”
“Grace misses her as a friend and is quick to forgive, but I really need your help, please,” Mitchell wrote in the email to Escamilla. “We understand you just want everyone to get along. Although it seems like they are doing okay, when you aren’t around, there are still issues. At this point, I really think it is a lost cause and the continued bullying is not acceptable.”
Mitchell closed by saying she would not permit the girls to work together for the remainder of the year under any circumstances.
“We do not want them trying to cooperate or work out their differences,” Mitchell wrote. “They need to stay away from one another. Period. If there are group activities, Grace needs to be as far away from them as possible.”
In Escamilla’s email response, she wrote that she had not received any reports on what Grace was experiencing. She stated that the girls had not completed any partner or group work together. Regarding keeping the students separated, Escamilla wrote that she didn’t want to publicly call for a separation for fear of furthering feelings of exclusion.
“I do not want to publicly separate the girls or express the need publicly because I do not want others to feel they have to choose a side. That too can be damaging to everyone which furthers the feeling of exclusion,” Escamilla wrote to Mitchell. “However, now that I am aware that incidents have not ceased like we had hoped, I will continue to keep them separated for our remaining days together…Please know that I have placed all three girls into separate classes for next year.”
The school year ended with no change, according to Mitchell and Grace. Mitchell asked Grace if she wanted to go to a different school, to which Grace said, “I want to go back home.”
“We decided it might be best to go back to Texas,” Mitchell said.
And they did. Grace now attends third grade at an elementary school in Texas.
Mitchell said the way the teachers and administrators addressed Grace’s bullying was “unacceptable.” She said she wants other parents to learn the signs of bullying and to know the best course of action to get their child help.
Lake Washington School District (LWSD) director of communications, Shannon Parthemer, said the district does not comment on situations involving individual students in order to protect student privacy.
“When bullying is reported to a teacher, principal, or any school district employee, the report is taken seriously,” Parthemer said. “If a parent does not feel that a bullying report has been taken seriously, and they have already spoken with their child’s teacher and the school principal, they should escalate the report to the director of elementary education or director of secondary education.”
LWSD has policies in place designed to help prevent and report harassment, intimidation and bullying of students. According to the policies, the district recognizes its responsibility to provide a safe and civil educational environment that is free from all types of discrimination and harassment, including sexual harassment, bullying, and intimidation. The policies also state that the district further defines harassment, intimidation, and bullying, and provides procedures for reporting, investigating, and resolving incidents promptly.
LWSD has several resources for students and families regarding bullying and harassment. The district uses Safe Schools, an online reporting system. It allows anyone to report bullying or harassment anonymously.
A proactive effort
Matt Gillingham, associate superintendent of student and community services, said the district has taken a proactive approach to educating students about bullying.
Students in grades K-2 take part in “Kelso’s Choice,” a conflict management program specifically designed for children. The program philosophy is simple: each child is smart enough and strong enough to resolve conflict.
Students in grades 3-5 participate in the “Steps to Respect” program from the Committee for Children. It aims to prevent bullying in the school.
Each middle school and high school has individualized programs within the schools to discourage bullying, including Link Crew, WEB or other similar programs. A number of schools participate in Safe School Ambassadors, a program that engages the socially influential student leaders and trains them to resolve conflicts, defuse incidents and support isolated and excluded students.
“This year all middle schools will be using CharacterStrong,” Gillingham said. CharacterStrong is social-emotional learning and character building program all in one.
LWSD strives to create a safe environment and culture for students, Johnny Phu, director of student services, said.
All parents, according to Gillingham, are made aware of how to make a report if their child is being bullied. Every parent and guardian is equipped with a parent handbook, he said.
“All schools communicate with parents on how to address a bullying issue,” Gillingham said.
Gillingham said there are generally two types of procedures to address bullying: informal and formal.
“With informal, we work with students to resolve the issue,” he said. “It turns into formal when the issue is persistent and cannot be resolved.”
A formal investigation from the district follows.
“It’s not enough to to be just against bullying,” Phu said. “We want our students to develop social-emotional skills to thrive in school and beyond. We want our students to be self-aware and know when to ask for help or support.”
To learn more about LWSD bullying policies and resources, visit the district website.