As schools in Hamilton County have returned to mostly in-person learning this year, incidents of bullying have returned as well.
In the first semester of the 2021-22 school year, the most recent data available, there were 102 confirmed cases of bullying reported. Only 77 cases were reported the entire academic year 2020-21, when many students were learning remotely amid the COVID-19 pandemic.
The school system is responding to requests from parents to address the increasing number of incidents by re-examining its anti-bullying policies, providing more staff training on how to handle and report bullying incidents and providing increased support for families with bullied children through the new advocacy division of the system's Office of Equity.
First semester bullying report for 2021-22View
For parents with children who have been dealing with bullying incidents, the changes can't come soon enough.
Blair Brown said her 10-year-old son Gilbert, a fourth grader at East Ridge Elementary, started getting bullied during the second week of this school year. The bullying continued from August 2021 to March 2022, and during that time Brown said she received a call from his school every day.
"I would try to figure out the best way to help him," said Brown, who said she did not feel the school did much to address the situation until she threatened to get an attorney involved and started to take her issues to the school board.
Brown spoke at a school board meeting in March and another in April about her son's experience with bullying at school.
"Everybody is pretty much still giving me the runaround," said Brown, adding that she requested all documentation of bullying of Gilbert that has been reported, and claims the only documentation she received involved two incidents that occurred from mid-March to late April.
"It's like no one wants to hear me, and everyone's just thinking that I'm just going to give up, but I'm not. I'm in this until the end, because I feel like, as the parent of a child that's been a victim of bullying, I feel like we should be able to see all documentations of that."
She thinks school administrators are given too much discretion in what they report as bullying.
"I think all incidents that have to do with bullying should be reported and that the schools shouldn't ... pick and choose which ones are more necessary than others to write about," she said.
Brown said the child who bullied Gilbert until March broke Gilbert's nose on the bus, which she reported to the school. She later asked for documentation of that report but was told there was no documentation of the incident in Gilbert's file.
Brown's husband called the East Ridge Police Department, and they filed a police report about the incident on the bus. The officers said they could not do anything because the child who hit Gilbert was under the age of 12, Brown said.
The school separated Gilbert and the other child into different classes, but she said the other boy still found ways to harm Gilbert in the cafeteria and the hallways, but mainly in the boys' bathroom.
She said she thinks there should be some sort of legal punishment for children under 12 that does not involve time in a juvenile detention center, such as community service, or holding the parents liable for the child's actions. Brown also thinks the schools should have monitors in the bathrooms, where she said a lot of the bullying happens and there are no cameras to record what goes on.
"There are kids out here taking their lives because of being bullied and no one wants to be their voices, but I will be," said Brown, whose son was so affected by bullying that he told one of his teachers that he "just wanted to go to heaven and be an angel with his cousin."
"As a parent, you just want to break down with them. No parent should hear their child say those words," she said.
The child who was bullying Gilbert is no longer at East Ridge Elementary, she said.
"I found out after the board meeting had ended that the boy was transferred," Brown said. "That's not what I wanted. I just wanted [the bullying] to stop."
Gilbert doesn't want to continue going to school at East Ridge Elementary, or any other school, she said.
"He just doesn't want to do anything anymore," she said. "Gilbert used to love school, but now he doesn't want to do anything. He'd rather just be by himself. I feel like if he wasn't being bullied, he would love to go back."
Schools with the most bullying incidents
Hamilton County Schools with most reported confirmed bullying incidents per 1,000 students, based on active enrollment for 2021-2022 and bullying data from fall 2017 through 2021:
› STEM School Chattanooga, 71.2.
› Lakeside Academy, 58.6.
› Orchard Knob Middle School, 55.7.
› Sale Creek Middle/High School, 45.
› Brainerd High School, 41.6.
› East Ridge Elementary, 40.7.
› Barger Academy, 38.7.
› Soddy-Daisy Middle School, 36.6.
› The Howard School, 33.7.
› Hixson Middle School, 32.5.
› Hamilton County Schools average, 13.8.
Source: Hamilton County Schools
Former Red Bank Middle School student Summer Essex said she was bullied and harassed by another student before she was allegedly assaulted in a school bathroom in November 2020.
Summer's mother, Christine Essex, said she is unaware of any disciplinary action taken by the school against the other student. The Essexes pressed criminal charges, which Christine Essex said were dismissed by the district attorney. Summer left Red Bank Middle the month of the assault and she is now home schooled.
"I didn't really feel safe at the school," said Summer, when asked why she decided to leave Red Bank Middle and start home schooling. "When I was there I always had to look behind my shoulder to make sure nothing happened."
This past January, Summer went before the school board to tell her story and to present seven and a half pages of signatures of Hamilton County residents who support changing Hamilton County Schools' policies and procedures concerning how bullying is handled.
"From then on we've been going to school board meetings and talking to other families about their children being bullied," said Christine Essex, who decided to run for the Hamilton County school board in the August election to represent District 10, which includes Ooltewah, Collegedale and Apison, so she can play an active role in changing the school system's bullying policies.
She is on the ballot as an independent, set to face Republican Faye Robinson and Democrat Jeff Crim on Aug. 4.
When asked what should be changed about the system's bullying policies and procedures, Essex said she would expand the offenses for which the system's "zero tolerance" policy applies to include assaults against students. The "no tolerance" policy for assault now only applies to "any student who commits aggravated assault or commits an assault that results in physical contact with any teacher, principal, administrator and other employee of the school or school resource officer," according to board policy.
She said she would also like to see changes to the system's discipline matrix.
"It's very ambiguous and open for a lot of misunderstanding," Essex said.
According to school policy, "bullying includes any act that substantially interferes with a student's educational benefits, opportunities or performance."
If the act occurs off school property or outside of any school-sponsored activity, it is still considered bullying "if it is directed at a specific student or students and has the effect of creating a hostile educational environment or a substantial disruption to the educational environment or the learning process," the policy states.
The policy also includes bullying done using electronic technology. Electronic technology includes cellphones, tablets and computers, as well as social media and other websites, texts and chats.
Schools with the fewest bullying incidents
Hamilton County Schools with fewest reported confirmed bullying incidents per 1,000 students, based on active enrollment for 2021-2022 and bullying data from fall 2017 through 2021:
› East Side Elementary School, 0.
› Lookout Mountain Elementary School, 0.
› North Hamilton County Elementary School, 0.
› Thrasher Elementary School, 0.
› Central High School, 1.3.
› Westview Elementary School, 1.6.
› Apison Elementary School, 1.7.
› Bess T. Shepherd Elementary School, 1.7.
› Big Ridge Elementary School, 2.2.
› Ooltewah High School, 2.3.
› Hamilton County Schools average, 13.8.
Source: Hamilton County Schools
"Examples may include inappropriate text messages or emails, rumors sent by email or posted on social network sites and embarrassing pictures, videos, websites or fake profiles," the policy states.
A real-life example of cyber-bullying was provided at the March school board meeting by Loretta Lowe, who said her granddaughter was the victim of bullies at Hunter Middle School who created a fake TikTok account under her granddaughter's name. The fake account was then used to post racist and homophobic comments on other students' TikTok videos, and Lowe claimed the bullies also created a TikTok account under a teacher's name and left similar comments.
"This is not school chatter anymore; this is not school drama," Lowe said, adding that she fears gang members could see the comments and retaliate with violence. "This behavior could end a teacher's career or get students seriously injured."
According to school board policy, all allegations of bullying should be fully investigated by a building administrator or school official. Investigations must begin no more than 48 hours after the report and be resolved within 20 days of the report.
Every building administrator should record complaints of discrimination, harassment, bullying and cyber-bullying and document how the administrator or other school officials responded to each complaint and the final disposition of each complaint. Administrators may not take disciplinary action based solely upon anonymous complaints, the policy states.
At the end of each school quarter, each building administrator should send a report summarizing complaints of discrimination, harassment, bullying, cyber-bullying and hazing to the director of schools. Each building administrator also is expected to be aware of trends in his or her school and to investigate and respond accordingly.
The discipline matrix found in the system's Code of Acceptable Behavior provides guidelines for assessing consequences for violations of school board policies, but the school principal has the discretion to deviate from the guidelines with "an appropriate consequence" depending on the circumstances, board policy states.
For 17 years, Karen Glenn has been involved in overseeing the district's anti-bullying programming, known as STARS — Students Taking a Right Stand. She said the school system's approach to bullying prevention throughout the years has included classroom presentations, leadership development, peer mediation, restorative practices, youth summits, grade level empathy training and kindness campaigns.
"Data has driven the level of service to ensure that programming strategies are effective in reducing inappropriate behaviors," she said in an email.
Joe Wingate, who represents East Brainerd on the school board, suggested at a February meeting that the Hamilton County Board of Education form a committee to consider changes to the board's policy regarding bullying.
Board member Karista Jones, of Lake Hills, said during the meeting that she doesn't feel a committee is necessary, but she would like for school staff to receive training on what bullying looks like today and how to handle it, since the types of bullying that occur now are very different from bullying that happened when she was in school in the 1980s and '90s.
"I think we need to take this bullying a lot more serious than we do sometimes," board member Rhonda Thurman, who represents Soddy-Daisy and Sale Creek, said at the Feb. 17 board meeting.
She said she'd like to see a more detailed breakdown of the district's data involving bullying incidents and the disciplinary actions taken in order to evaluate the effectiveness of current policies.
"We know we can always do better, and in my role as chief of equity and advocacy, one of my top priorities is to continue our work to make sure all our students feel safe in schools," Marsha Drake, Hamilton County Schools chief of equity and advocacy, said in an emailed statement. "Over the next few months, we will provide our staff members with professional development on bullying prevention and how to identify bullying behaviors, reaffirm our polices surrounding bullying and continue to enforce consequences for bullying behaviors. Parents and students can report any bullying behaviors by contacting the Office of Advocacy directly or anonymous tip line knowing that they will have a family advocate that will work directly with them and the school to successfully resolve the issue."
In response to emailed questions from the Chattanooga Times Free Press, Drake said the Office of Advocacy is a newly created family support division that was developed following Superintendent Justin Robertson's initial meeting with members of the community and staff when he took over the role in January.
"Dr. Robertson wanted all of the students/families that we serve to know that that they are seen/heard and have a voice," Drake said. "The Office of Advocacy's goal is to provide that ongoing support for all students/families within the district for a variety of reasons/issues, bullying included."
Administrators should provide their staff with anti-bullying training each year, but this year Drake said the district will provide additional training over the summer months to make sure all employees are informed of the bullying prevention tools available to them as well as reporting steps they are required to take.
At the April 21 school board meeting, members voted to create a new district athletic director position. Previously a single employee performed the duties of district athletic director as well as the duties of the student disciplinary hearing authority, which will now be a separate position under the Office of Equity and Advocacy.
"It's going to be a part of some of the changes that we're making to address the bullying situations and the process there," Robertson said, adding that the responsibilities of the disciplinary hearing authority are to recruit administrators to the disciplinary committee, train committee members on state law regarding disciplinary committee meetings and hold meetings of the committee. "We keep hearing about discipline issues, we keep hearing about bullying incidents. It's going to open up time for that person also to assist Dr. Drake in dealing with those issues and being more proactive in supporting parents through their situations."
Board member Joe Smith, who represents Hixson, said during an April meeting that he supports the creation of a position dedicated solely to disciplining students.
"We've got to get a handle on bullying and discipline in our schools and change the whole culture," he said.
Contact Emily Crisman at email@example.com or 423-757-6508.