ELKHART —Todd and Amber Isler’s son loved school, crying when summer break arrived. But that changed after his family moved from Grand Rapids, Mich., and he started second grade at Pinewood Elementary.
He would complain of stomach aches and headaches, saying he didn’t want to go to school, according to his parents. His grades dropped, as did his usual upbeat behavior.
The Islers continually asked their son to tell them what was wrong. “We can’t help you if we don’t know how to help you,” Amber said they told their son.
After a lot of pushing from his parents, he finally told them: He was being bullied.
That bullying included insults, but also physical hitting and even choking by a particular boy and sometimes others in his class, the Islers said. Former friends avoided him out of fear of being bullied too, they said.
Like other local schools, Elkhart Community Schools has programs in place to help prevent bullying, but it still happens. Preventing and countering bullying in schools takes a community effort. But some parents, including the Islers, have found that even being attentive to their children and engaged in their children’s school life can leave them feeling alone and neglected when trying to keep their children safe. School officials say safety is a top concern.
‘I HAD TO DO SOMETHING’
“Do you know what it’s like as a mom to have your son tell you that nobody will play with him, he walks around the playground where no one will play with him, he hides in the bathroom?” Amber Isler said. The Islers took their son to counseling for depression and anxiety. He’s also gone on medication.
The Islers continually talked with their son’s teacher and principal, but said that teachers didn’t see the incidents the Islers described or didn’t seem to take the Islers’ concerns seriously.
“A week before fifth grade started, he came to me and he said, ‘Mom I really need to talk to you,’” Amber Isler recalled. “He broke down crying and he told me that he didn’t want to go to school. He hated school and he told me step-by-step how he planned to commit suicide or how he planned to get money and run away to his grandparents in Michigan.
“And I think the worst part was when he told me how he would say goodbye to me in the note,” Amber said through tears. “And he was only 10. At that point, I knew I had to do something.”
The Islers transferred their son to Beardsley Elementary, where he flourished.
“He really bloomed,” Amber said. His grades turned around, making straight As instead of the Cs and Ds as before, they said.
The Islers credited Beardsley’s staff with being especially attentive to bullying issues and offering a very caring environment for their son.
After fifth and sixth grade at Beardsley, though, their son again encountered bullying from the same boy at North Side Middle School.
Last spring, the Islers’ son and the boy who had bullied him had a confrontation in the school’s cafeteria, where the Islers’ son hit the boy. He was then suspended, while the boy who had bullied him was given in-school suspension because he reportedly hadn’t hit the Islers’ son during that particular run-in, the Islers said.
The Islers continued to try to work with administrators and said they’ve continued to feel like not enough has been done. Their son has been doing well so far this school year and not really been bothered by the boy that had been targeting him for so long.
SCHOOLS: ‘SOMETHING IS ALWAYS DONE’
Mary Yoder Holsopple, Elkhart Community School’s bullying prevention coordinator, said that she often hears parents and students saying that they reported an incident, but nothing was done.
“That’s generally not true,” she said. “Something is always done, but it takes a while to change behavior.”
While working to keep students that have been bullied safe, Yoder Holsopple and other staff work at providing resources to students who have bullied to help figure out why a student bullies and how to help that student stop.
“This is not a bad student. This is not a bad child. This is a child who has made an unfortunate choice in behavior,” Yoder Holsopple said. “And we think that this is really an important thing that we do, because if we don’t address this when they’re young, we know that those behaviors can follow people and lead to more anti-social behavior later on.”
Because of that process, Yoder Holsopple encourages people to continue to report incidents they see so that staff can continue to check up on students. She also said that statistics say that adults see only 5 percent of the bullying that goes on with youths.
Along with the processing that goes on with both parties in bullying situations, there are also consequences for students who bully. Those consequences grow in severity for each count of bullying, but because each situation is unique, there is not a set list of offenses and consequences, Yoder Holsopple said.
“For privacy reasons, we can’t disclose what the consequence is or what we’ve done,” she said. “So, parents and students sometimes think we haven’t done anything, when, in fact, we’ve done a lot.”
That work can include not only working individually with the parties in a bullying situation, but alerting school staff to keep an eye out for situations to arise between certain students.
“I want parents to know that we’re listening and that we’re trying to take care of their kids. But at the same time not being able to share the private information of the other student, it’s difficult,” Yoder Holsopple said.
A range of school employees, including Director of Student Services Tony England, Yoder Holsopple, social workers and behavior consultants, work with students who chronically bully. They try to figure out what that student gets out of bullying and work to replace bullying with other behaviors.
Keeping school officials up-to-date with what’s going on, though, is crucial.
“The school can’t do anything until we know about it,” Yoder Holsopple said. That means not only reporting about things that go on at school, but letting a teacher, principal or someone else at a school know about situations that happen outside of school, so that staff can keep an eye out for any carry over.
England said, “That contact with the school becomes paramount for any kind of action. We need that information to be able to work with a parent and we want to work with parents. We want kids to be safe. We want kids to feel safe and good when they’re at school.”
Elkhart Community Schools works to train all administrators and staff in the Olweus Bullying Prevention Program, which is 90 percent focused on prevention, Yoder Holsopple said.
New state legislation took effect this summer requiring schools to have research-based bullying prevention education for staff and students, an anonymous reporting system, appropriate consequences for students doing the bullying and services available for students who have been bullied.
Elkhart Community Schools had everything in place to meet those requirements already, but some families, including the Islers and others, are still frustrated with how the school system has handled bullying situations.
IS IT ENOUGH?
Brandi Fought said her daughter had been continually receiving threats through text messages, Facebook and in the hallways from a group of girls telling her they were “going to kick your ass,” and threatening to hurt her in other ways.
Fought said she doesn’t feel as though Memorial High School’s administration took the complaints from Fought and her daughter seriously. Last school year, at 15 years old, Fought’s daughter was jumped and beaten up by three girls, she said. It didn’t happen at the school, but many of the threats before the assault did, she said.
Fought filed a police report, including copies of the texts. The prosecutor’s office has the report, she said.
She transferred her daughter to Central High School for the new school year.
“I can’t send my kid to school not feeling safe about,” Fought said.
“You hear of suicide, of Columbine, of those things happening — this is why,” Fought said. “For someone who just wants to go to school.”
The parents of the three girls who allegedly attacked Fought’s daughter refused to bring their daughters to a meeting with Fought, Fought’s daughter and school officials.
“I just don’t get it,” Fought said in an interview. “If the parents aren’t going to do anything about it, the school needs to be proactive.”
Todd and Amber Isler said they wanted to get word out to other parents that bullying goes on, but that they aren’t alone and that parents need to pay attention to their kids behavior.
“Parents need to really be proactive,” Amber Isler said. “I feel like sometimes they feel like their hands are tied and I just want them to keep pushing.”
“And to question (your kids) — when you know something’s not right, you know something’s not right,” Todd Isler said.
“Life is busy,” Amber said, “but I think if parents really stopped and paid attention to what their kids are saying or how their mannerisms are changing. ... Just knowing that I could have lost my son for something like this.”
England, who said part of the reason he wanted to be Elkhart’s director of student services was because of the school system’s commitment to bullying prevention, said that the Islers advice was absolutely correct.
Parents need to find out what’s going on with their children, he said, and make the school aware of concerns.
How to get help
Mary Yoder Holsopple, bullying prevention coordinator for Elkhart Community Schools, said that parents can always contact her directly if they feel that they need to reach out to someone about a bullying situation.
People can contact Mary Yoder Holsopple at 574-295-4840 or at firstname.lastname@example.org
The Olweus Bullying Prevention Program, which Elkhart and several other local schools have implemented, also offers resources on its website for parents of students who are bullied or who bully others, and generally for parents to use when talking to their kids. Olweus’ website is at www.violencepreventionworks.org