The spring semester of 2019 was a rough year for area schools concerning the question of racism and bullying among their students. At the beginning of the year, the community came alive on social media, discussing their concerns on community Facebook pages in the wake of allegations from Parkrose High School that racial slurs had been hurled by St. Helens students at a local basketball game.
Comment sections were littered with personal stories from schools in every area. Frustrated parents shared accounts of their children’s experiences, and former students long-since graduated shared memories of their own struggles in school.
The subject is not strictly a local problem. According to stopbullying.gov, 28 percent of American students in grades 6-12 experience bullying and 30 percent of our American youth admit to bullying others. 70 percent of young people say they have witnessed bullying in their school, and 70 percent of school staff admit the same.
The most common types of bullying are verbal and social, and thankfully, statistics show physical bullying happens less frequently. But only 20 to 30 percent of students who are bullied will actually say something about it.
However, The Chronicle spoke to two families struggling with these issues in Rainier’s Hudson Park Elementary who wanted to say something. We listened to their stories and touched base with the elementary school to see where they stand in the ongoing battle against such incidents.
Students speak out
Siblings Jasius Gray, a 4th grade student, and Naomi Burton, a 3rd grade student, spent the previous school year in Hudson Park after their mother raised to the rank of Chief in the United States Navy and was assigned to a new crew and ship in California.
“When you get picked for Chief, you have a minimum six-week boot camp and your life is literally only two to four hours a day on your own,” the children’s grandmother, Leigh Kenoyer said. “So, it made more sense to have the kids come here for school rather than me go out there for six to eight months. I didn’t want to be down there that long.”
Jasius and Naomi are of mixed race and say they have struggled with race-related bullying at the elementary school. Both claimed they had been called “the N-word” numerous times.
“There’s other people who’ve been called that, but there’s not that many black people in our school like in our last school,” Jasius said, adding when others bully him about his looks, “It makes me feel sad and it makes me feel different from the others.”
Naomi’s hardest day came on school picture day, to which she’d worn lip gloss for the occasion.
“Someone said that I was so black that even if I put a whole ton of lip gloss on, they could still see my lips,” Naomi said. “I told the teacher and then the teacher told his mom.”
The children detailed several incidents. Jasius in particular has had problems with another boy getting physical with him. There were situations on the bus that Kenoyer said were handled right away after reviewing recorded tape. However, Kenoyer and her grandchildren have grown frustrated with the ongoing problems at school that they feel haven’t seen much change.
“It seems to be a continuous thing. I’ve been told that it’s been handled and, of course, I’m not at liberty to know what consequences there were or who was talked with or what the circumstances were,” Kenoyer said. “I do know that over the multiple times that I keep bringing this to their attention, I don’t see any consequences. I’ve spoken with the guidance counselors, spoken with the principal, vice principal, the superintendent, and it’s, ‘rest assured, this is going to be taken care of’ but I keep having this conversation.”
Kenoyer was quick to have her grandchildren confess that they have had their own behavioral problems, particularly Jasius, but is adamant they are each handed consequences for their actions at home and she stays in constant contact with their teachers to assure they behave.
Shia Altman-Pollack, a 2nd grader, is on the autism spectrum and said he has also often struggled with bullies.
“He’s just given us tremendous amounts of reports of teasing, calling him names, hitting him,” Shia’s mother, Jessica Altman-Pollack said. “He’s been approved for special-ed 50 percent of the time, and he’s wanted to spend all his time in there because that’s where he feels safe and nobody bullies him.”
Shia also acknowledged that he was afraid to tell the other children that he has two moms. He has dealt with students calling him “gay” and questioning his sexuality.
Atlman-Pollack said she understood it can be difficult for young children to navigate around a child with personality issues as Shia has. She said he tends to be a tattle-tale, and can be seen as the boy who cries wolf, but there have been legitimate concerns of his that she feels has been overlooked because of that. She said she’s heard there’s something like a collective groan when the boy returns to class.
“It’s, ‘Aww, Shia’s here,’” Shia said, admitting he doesn’t feel comfortable anymore. “Everybody’s constantly looking at me when I walk through. That’s why I don’t want to go to school anymore.”
Shia has utilized the “calming corner” safe spaces that have been established for children having a hard time controlling their emotions, but he is teased for using them. The family said they are now looking into homeschooling Shia next year but are in the process of fighting a three percent cap that may make it difficult to achieve.
Both families say they have overheard bullying towards Hispanic children – told they needed to “go back home,” that they “didn’t belong here” and that their people are criminals and killers and that was why America was building the wall.
And Altman-Pollack backed up the racist comments made against Jasius and Naomi. She’d attended a track meet where the students had won some medals.
“I heard someone say, ‘oh, they got the black awards,’ or something like that,” Atlman-Pollack said. “They’re definitely not making anything up.”
Kenoyer said she reached out to The Chronicle in spite of the fact that her grandchildren will return to California next year. Her concerns are for the other students of mixed-race or who are of African American or Hispanic heritage. She has friends that have been approved for foster care and may be bringing non-white children into their home who will attend Hudson Park.
“If this doesn’t get handled, it’s just going to continue on and on and on,” Kenoyer said.
The school responds
Hudson Park Elementary School Principal, Heidi Blakely, was quick to admit she understands where Kenoyer’s concerns and said she has been involved in multiple meetings to support Shia.
“He’s the sweetest little boy,” she said. “I just love him to death.”
At the crux of the matter is a change in emotional landscape that schools are now re-learning to deal with, according to Blakely, who said kids are coming in with more needs now, especially in Title 1 schools with more poverty, which Hudson Park experiences.
The school has added a full-time counselor at the expense of funding other educational areas. There are various behavioral plans that send students to special teachers to have different skills taught to them and they have established program curriculum to help students learn how to regulate their emotions. There is a Wellness Center that must be staffed and trained. And again, Blakely said, that costs money. Furthermore, she said they always exceed the allocation the government provides to address special needs children, with the remainder being pulled from the general fund.
“A full-time counselor, that takes away from another teacher and increases my classroom sizes, but that’s why we’re putting this Wellness Center in to help those kids. That takes staffing, that takes time away from learning in the classroom, but it demonstrates as a school district and as a school how seriously we really want to support these kids and teach them how to work in a school environment,” Blakely said.
Superintendent Michael Carter said the Rainier District has taken great strides in educating their staff on trauma informed care and Adverse Childhood Experiences, or ACE scores. They are now teaching behavior as much as they teach math and reading.
While it can be easy to lose patience with student bullies, Carter said it can also be easy to forget that many of these bullies are dealing with extreme circumstances outside of school and are likely acting out as a result. How much punishment is fair, or even appropriate for such a child?
“In the past, it’s been, ‘you’re disrupting the learning environment, get out of here.’ We don’t do that now,” Carter said. “We find out what’s wrong and some of the kids can’t communicate those needs. Maybe they didn’t get breakfast that day, so we feed them, make sure their basic needs are taken care of and that they feel safe. Some kids acting up don’t have those assets – we’ve got some kids with ACE scores at nine and ten, and we have to teach empathy.”
Blakely admits that the piece she struggles with is that when she shares with frustrated parents that the school is following up with disciplinary actions to redirect students in the right way, she cannot share the steps that are being taken to redirect a student that is not that parent’s child.
“I can’t share those steps because it’s confidential to that specific family, but we follow through with a definite process,” Blakely said. “Generally, you try to reteach the appropriate behavior before you move to more disciplinary stuff. If a student doesn’t know how to read, we’re not going to kick them out of school. So, we also believe we have to teach that appropriate behavior.”
Blakely added there is a new law that students in 5th grade or below cannot be suspended from school unless they’re a proper security threat or safety issue.
Many of these problem children come to the school with high ACE scores, Blakely said. They come from a divorced family, or from a family that’s involved in drugs, and if they’re bullied at home … they’re more likely to be bullies at school.
Carter pointed out that we’re dealing with one of the highest unemployment and foreclosure rates - that many Columbia County families are fighting for money and their students are growing up in that.
“All my teaching staff has been through extensive training around that to help these students that have higher behavioral needs. We need to teach our kids with what they come to us with,” Blakely said. “We need to meet them where they’re at.”
Blakely added any bullying incidents or reports of racial misconduct are addressed immediately and are not taken lightly.
“It’s very difficult to explain that that young person didn’t have what you have and there’s a certain place where you have to draw the line, and that is what we’re still working on,” Carter said. “We’re adding more and more supports and we’re still augmenting it, but Hudson Park has more mental health services than any other school in the district.”
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