Bullying runs rampant throughout Humboldt County’s schools, local parents and students said today at a protest outside the Humboldt County Superior Court building.
Some at the protest blamed bullying for the suicide of a McKinleyville high school student earlier this month. Saryn Kennedy, a Eureka resident and mother of three, said all three of her children have experienced bullying in school and decided to take a stand since not enough was being done about it.
“The fact that I haven’t seen anyone take a stand like this just pushed me to do it more,” Kennedy said.
Kennedy described how a boy pushed a gate into one of her daughter’s mouths, breaking her tooth.
“The kids make up songs about her,” Kennedy said. “So now she doesn’t smile or laugh anymore and that’s not OK with me.”
Kennedy said she’s been getting a lot of outreach and support from the community members, who have also been sharing their stories. Virginia Schuchard was alongside Kennedy, protesting with her daughter Kyla, who has anxiety. Schuchard said her daughter experienced bullying at her middle school on a regular basis, including having dodge balls thrown at her head and being threatened with rape.
“People bully me because I’m different,” Kyla said, adding that her teachers have seen her get bullied and have failed to intervene.
Schuchard said when she reached out to the school about what was happening to her daughter, they said they were handling it. But things only got worse, Schuchard said, and her daughter began cutting herself.
“When I told the school, they said that was a perfectly normal thing for a middle school student to do,” Schuchard said.
Eventually, Schuchard said she had to take matters into her own hands and pull her daughter out of school, but that it was important for “everyone to be on heightened alert since the suicide that happened at McKinleyville High School.”
Nic Collart, principal of McKinleyville High School, and Dave Navarre, principal of Arcata High School, were not available for comment by publication time. Calls to McKinleyville Union School District were not returned by publishing deadline.
Claire Strong said nothing has changed since her daughter had been severely bullied when she was in the school system in Humboldt County a few years ago.
“I felt very alone,” Strong said, adding that the other parents and children have created a reliable support group among themselves.
The parents said they are trying to get bullying included on the June 6 agenda of the Eureka City Schools district board meeting. They said they would like to see more support staff to watch over the kids, counseling for kids who are bullied and educational programs for the students to understand the impact of bullying.
A representative from one school district, Eureka City Schools, said the district is aware of the problem of bullying in schools and has begun implementing programs to combat it.
“Bullying is an issue that’s a problem across the United States,” said Fred Van Vleck, superintendent of Eureka City Schools. “It’s certainly a problem everywhere.”
Van Vleck said the school district was having a lot of problems with behavior a few years ago, but has since developed ongoing programs to address bullying and bad behavior in general. Recently the school has begun to see improvements.
“The difference between where we were five years ago and where we are today is just night and day,” Van Vleck said.
During the 2011-2012 school year, the percentage of students suspended for one or more days was 11.12 percent, according to data from the district. It went down to 7.7 percent in the 2016-2017 school year, increasing to 8.13 percent during the past school year before being cut in half during the current school year.
“Research is very clear on suspension — most of the time it just plain old doesn’t work,” Van Vleck said. “You’re removing the student from the situation, but there’s no learning that goes along with the situation to stop that behavior from happening again.”
Instead of focusing on punishment, the school is focusing on prevention and restoration, Van Vleck said. The school has a system known as positive behavior intervention and support that focuses on reinforcing positive behavior rather than punishing bad behavior.
“We still do suspend sometimes when a student’s safety is at risk,” Van Vleck said.
Brian Payton, who ran for the Eureka City Schools board on an anti-bullying platform, said that the system in place currently isn’t working as effectively as it should, citing an online video that was circulated recently showing a Zane Middle School student being assaulted by another student.
When things do go wrong between students, Van Vleck said the district employs restorative practices, which focus on “bringing those people together and restoring that relationship.”
“We’re training our teachers to be trainers of restorative practices to build that capacity within the district,” Van Vleck said.
The teachers keep track of problematic behavior through using behavior tracking forms. Van Vleck said school staff enter that information into a database so the district can track the types of problematic behaviors students are engaging in across the campuses. This year, the number of behavior tracking forms teachers filled in were almost cut in half, Van Vleck said.
Van Vleck said all three of his children have attended the school district and he couldn’t “think of a better district to have them in.”
Sonia Waraich can be reached at 707-441-0506.