Families protest school’s response to bullying allegations

Virginia

Parents say bullying has no place in Warren County Public Schools

FRONT ROYAL, Va. (WDVM) — Parents and students are upset after bullying allegations surfaced at a Warren County middle school.

Protesters lined up outside Skyline Middle School Wednesday morning, posters in hand, taking a stance against bullying.

“We have to protect our kids,” shouted organizer Jamie Brown, who says her son Elijah, 12, has been a victim of bullying at the school. “But we can only do it if we come together.”

Elijah has cerebral palsy and Brown says he has been bullied by some of his classmates, even punched in the stomach so hard by one child, the balloon in his feeding tube ruptured. Brown says it got so bad at school, her son left the building one day for an unknown amount of time.

Elijah’s sisters joined the protest in support of their little brother.

“I don’t want my handicapped brother being bullied,” said Elijah’s sister Madyson Dodson, 17, who says she also experienced bullying and harassment at Skyline High School. “It’s sad, you know? We have to stop this. And I’m glad so many people showed up today.”

Much of the conversation around bullying at the schools has happened online, through community Facebook groups and a page started by Brown called The bullying stops here Front Royal Virginia, with many parents commenting about their children being bullied at the county’s middle and high schools.

On Tuesday, Virginia State Police confirmed that at the request of the Commonwealth’s Attorney’s Office, troopers are investigating an incident at Skyline Middle School in which a student with disabilities was allegedly assaulted by at least two other students.

Skyline Middle School’s principal Robert Johnston declined to comment, but released a statement which read in part:

“We believe that all students have the right to live and be educated in a safe, caring and supportive environment with mutual respect and courtesy….We are here to help support and grow engaged, healthy children into engaged, healthy young adults who are ready for the academic challenges of high school.”

Robert Johnston,
Skyline Middle School Principal

In the open letter, Johnston also cited several programs the school district offers to prevent bullying, correct the behavior of bullies, and support those who are bullied.

But Brown says those programs aren’t stopping the problem in the classroom.

“If I was doing this, letting all this go on in my house, he wouldn’t even be at my house, he would be removed. But yet the school can continually do this and get away with it,” she said. “There are a lot of staff that is wonderful here, people that are advocates for my son. But there are some that are just letting things slip though and they have to be held accountable.”

Brown has faced backlash from some adults in the community. During the protest, a man drove and in front of reporters and children, he cursed at Brown, before driving up the hill into the school parking lot. But Brown says she won’t back down.

“I don’t want […] you interviewing me in two years from now and my son’s killed himself over this,” she said. “I’m standing up, there’s no more. We all have to stop this.”

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Some people have suggested Brown pull her son from the school to keep him safe, but she says doing so isn’t fair to other kids left behind.

“They should all feel safe to go to school. Every child deserves that,” she said, including the students who are bullying her son.

Brown has pressed charges against two of the children who have allegedly assaulted Elijah, but says she doesn’t want them to be punished. She simply wants to keep her son safe and for the kids who bullied him to get help.

Elijah has his own message for kids being bullied.

“You can join this group and we can help you from Stop Bullying,” he said, referring to the group his family has started. “You can come support us and we can support you, and make you happy and make you feel safe at school.”

The family says they plan to protest every Wednesday at 7 a.m. outside the school until more action is taken to keep all students safe at school.

Skyline Middle School Principal Robert Johnston’s full letter can be read below:

To Our Skyline Community: 

In the last week there has been a great deal of discussion regarding bullying at Skyline Middle School and our response to instances of bullying. We believe that all students have the right to live and be educated in a safe, caring and supportive environment with mutual respect and courtesy. Bullying is anti-social behavior that threatens the values, standards, and peace of our school and community. I would like to take the opportunity to address the Skyline community regarding how we handie bullying from a preventative and responsive point-of-view. 

Skyline Middle School has many preventative programs that address the bullying situations your child may face. Our first level of bullying prevention starts with our school-wide behavior expectations. We teach expectations for how students are to treat one another, show kindness to one another, respect one another, and how to own their actions when they are not meeting those expectations. 

Sometimes students struggle in meeting behavior expectations. We provide all of our students training using a social-emotional program called Second Step. We have used Second Step for the last five years, and students regularly participate in this program throughout the year. Students focus on empathy and communication as well as bullying prevention and management of their emotions. 

Additionally, we provide a mindfulness program for small groups of students. We provide this additional support to assist these students in proactively regulating their emotions. This support is in place to prevent instances of bullying. 

Over the last four years, we have been able to provide our students the opportunity to view a production from the Same Sky Project. 

“The Same Sky Project features a traveling group of performers who advocate for and promote messages of empathy, love, inclusion, acceptance and inspiration through music and performance. Conceived in 2011 by a client with cerebral palsy, the Same Sky Project showcases a changing group of teens, each with different physical, intellectual and developmental challenges who perform original shows at local school assemblies in an effort to communicate their daily struggles and aspirations to fellow classmates.”

Although we have preventative programs, some students continue to engage in behavior that negatively affects others. Ripple Effects, a computer based program, is designed to help students reflect on their actions and how they impact others. Peer mediation and social skills groups are other ways we address bullying and student conflicts. We are able to refer students to outside agencies like Family Preservation Services for outpatient counseling through the Therapeutic Day Treatment program. This agency works to provide counseling services to students in need of behavior modification. 

We recognize that many students have been exposed to trauma. Project Courage, which is funded through the Warren Coalition, provides students with trauma-informed care, thus working to provide a high level of behavior support for students in need. 

We continue to add programs to assist students in becoming more compassionate and empathetic towards one another. Our newest program is called Do You in conjunction with the The Phoenix Project. This program is designed to facilitate youth resiliency. Students focus on self-esteem, healthy relationships, and communication skills. This past year we partnered with a local non-profit group called Reaching Out Now. This group’s mission is to provide uplifting experiences to female students through self-esteem building, leadership development activities, and much more. 

The goal of Skyline Middle School, as this year’s motto states, is One Vision, One Team, One Community. We are here to help support and grow engaged, healthy children into engaged, healthy young adults who are ready for the academic challenges of high school. We welcome a partnership with the parents of our students in order to form a strong community connection. Should you have any questions or if you would like further information, please do not hesitate to contact me at (540) 636-0909 or via email, biohnston@wcps.k12.va.us. Thank you for your time. 

Yours in Partnership, 

Robert Johnston Principal Skyline Middle School 

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