April Nicole Jones said she tried to go back to school in January, but the bullies who drove her away the first time continued to make life miserable.
Jones, an 18-year-old who finished ninth grade at Murray County High School but never got beyond the 10th, said she was verbally bullied and sexually harassed so much she decided not to go back.
“Whenever they started picking on me, I just couldn’t take it,” Jones said. “I was thinking about (doing) what Tyler Long did.”
Tyler Long was the MCHS junior who took his life on Oct. 17. His parents, David and Tina Long, say their son’s suicide was precipitated by years of being bullied at school. They’ve filed a wrongful death suit against the Murray school district and principal Gina Linder in federal court in Rome. The suit alleges school officials did nothing to stop bullying on campus despite their repeated complaints. Attorneys for the defendants have said school officials did all they could. They are scheduled to file a response to the suit by Saturday.
Each year, between 15 and 25 percent of U.S. students in elementary through high school report being bullied, according to stopbullyingnow.hrsa.gov, a Web site developed through the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. According to the site, students with disabilities are more likely to be bullied, and, in some cases, are also more likely to bully others.
Jones said she has attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), diabetes, depression, sleep apnea and bipolar disorder. Tyler’s parents said he had Asperger’s Disorder, a mild form of autism that inhibited his ability to interact socially. Some of the students accused in the lawsuit of bullying Tyler were the same students who bullied Jones, members of both families said.
Several families in local school systems have contacted the Longs and The Daily Citizen in the months since Tyler’s death, reporting their experiences with school bullying. They also say the bullying continued despite family members repeatedly reporting the incidents to school administrators. Many parents raised questions again during a community forum on bullying in schools hosted by WRCB-Channel 3 in Murray County in December.
State and federal law bars school officials from discussing individual students’ cases with anyone besides their legal guardians, but officials with Dalton Public Schools, Murray County Schools and Whitfield County Schools have all said they take bullying seriously and take appropriate action when they learn about it. Penalties for bullying range from in-school suspension to being kicked out of school. In some cases, criminal charges may be filed.
Bullying in schools has received more statewide and national attention recently. Authorities say a teen in Massachusetts committed suicide in January after being bullied for several months. Several teens face criminal charges there. Georgia lawmakers have considered several bills aimed at stopping bullying in schools and inducing stiffer penalties. Many families who complain of school bullying reference the Long case.
Dean Donehoo, administrative services director for Murray County Schools, called bullying a “serious problem” in the school system during a public meeting on school safety and other issues in December. He said school officials take bullying seriously and implemented the Positive Behavior Support (PBS) program in five schools last year before making the program system-wide this school year. The program is designed to reward good behavior and educate students on the importance of avoiding bullying.
Several students say too little is being done. Jones said she was sexually propositioned and was called “fat,” “ugly” and some sexually derogatory names. She said the harassment continued even after she and her mother told teachers and school administrators about it and showed them a written note one of the bullies had given her.
“There was this boy in my third period class,” Jones added. “He would come up behind me in the hallway and yell those words out to me and try to get me to turn around and just try to get me mad.”
Shannon Felts said her fifth-grade daughter has been bullied by other students at Blue Ridge School in Dalton for two years. She said her daughter has been hit, bruised, had her face shoved in a water fountain and had her hair pulled. Each day, she would come home crying, saying how much she hated school because of the problems she was having. Her grades dropped from As and Bs to Fs, Felts said.
She said she reported the incidents to teachers and administrators, but the problems continued, and at least some school employees suggested she was overreacting when she complained. She plans to transfer her child to another school or home school her, but she also wants other parents to know they are not alone in dealing with school bullies. She said she wants teachers and school leaders not to be dismissive when told about bullying problems.
“They need to step up,” she said. “Something can be done about it ... My daughter is to the point where she sobs every day she comes in.”
In Chatsworth, another parent said she transferred her son from Murray County High School to Mountain Creek Academy because of bullying. The parent asked to be identified only by her first name, Lynn, because she feared retribution.
Lynn said her son, like Tyler Long, has Asperger’s, and other students often verbally bullied him, hit him and poked him. Lynn said her son had behavior problems sometimes, but whenever he retaliated against his bullies he was punished and the other students were not. Lynn said her son came home often with marks on him, and the marks did not stop until she informed school administrators she would file criminal charges the next time it happened.
Lynn spoke highly of the atmosphere at Mountain Creek Academy, an alternative school students can request to attend. She said administrators and teachers there have low tolerance for misbehavior, and students receive more one-on-one attention.
“They are the school of ‘we understand everybody,’” Lynn said. “They’ve listened to every suggestion I’ve given them. It’s a fabulous alternative.”
As for Karen Jones, April’s mother, she said she’s thankful her daughter’s fate wasn’t the same as that of Tyler Long.
“I love my daughter,” she said, “and I’m just afraid that if she kept on going (to school), she would have done this.”
A day-long training session specially designed for school administrators to address bullying will be held in Chattanooga on April 29 at the Siskin Children’s Institute. For more information or to register, go to www.siskin.org/bullying. The training session is free and will feature Susan Swearer, Ph.D., a University of Nebraska-Lincoln researcher. Topics include helping administrators evaluate school climate, recognize and assess bullying, and identify critical components of a bully prevention plan.