POLL: Should bullies be expelled from school?
First Drew Herrmann felt anger, then shame. Now, after a traumatizing bullying episode at Hunter Middle School in September, he's simply afraid.
The shy, blue-eyed 13-year-old hides behind long brown hair as he talks. He doesn't want to talk about it, but if telling the story again protects him, then he will.
On Sept. 23, Herrmann was one of at least four students held down in the locker room by four other boys and beaten with a belt while another student took video on a cellphonelike recorder.
It happened as the boys were changing clothes to start morning physical education class, he said. It happened again as the boys changed at the end of the class.
Neither time was a teacher present.
"Right when I took my shorts off somebody came and said, 'Hey, over here.' Then two other boys grabbed me and held me down," he said. "One of them started hitting me with the belt, one videoed."
This was the first time it had happened to Drew, but it wasn't the first time that the group of boys had victimized fellow students. A subsequent police report revealed that the abuse had been going on for weeks.
Hunter Principal Robert Alford told the Chattanooga Times Free Press he couldn't comment on the individual incident. But he said the students responsible were punished. He said he couldn't disclose specific disciplinary actions because of student privacy.
Every day an estimated one in four children is bullied, according to the U.S. Department of Justice. The issue has gained attention in Hamilton County and across the nation in recent years, spurred by violence and student suicides tied to bullying and the rising incidence of bullying via social media and the Internet.
Drew said nearly all of the 25 classmates were in the locker room when the incident began. He left after the boys finished hitting him and they targeted another victim.
School officials found out about the incident only after Drew told his mother, Tracy Sims, that Friday afternoon and she called Alford.
Alford met with Drew, his family and School Resource Officer James Naylor the following Monday.
After the meeting, in which Drew described the events, a sheriff's investigator questioned those involved and found out that the group belt-beatings had been going on since the start of the school year in August.
Names of the other alleged victims and perpetrators have been redacted from the police report and other documents because all are minors.
But the report says one boy was the primary aggressor. It says he giggled when he told police about the event, saying he "was just having fun" and that the group planned "these whippings in advance."
He told police that "no one would tell on him because 'people respect me and who I am so I can do what I want.'"
Apparently the intent was to post the video online, but officials don't believe it got that far. Police copied the video for evidence, then deleted it from the recording device.
Sims contacted Alford after the meeting, trying to learn what had happened to the accused boys. She got little to no information, she said, with school officials citing privacy laws.
Each day Drew heard rumors that the boys were coming back to school.
Parents of other victims also contacted the school and four of the five Sept. 23 victims gave information to police, which allowed the aggressors to be charged with assault in Juvenile Court.
Sims learned from other sources that the aggressors were suspended for 20 days and placed in alternative school until next semester. She wants them expelled.
At least one boy has threatened Drew on Facebook since the suspension.
On Oct. 13, one of the boys posted, "Drew I [expletive deleted] hate you."
Another person asked who Drew was.
"...man this drew Herman kid snitched on me for holding his legs up while my friend beat his [expletive] with a belt haha."
"I'm kickin that kids [expletive] when I see him."
Sims said she and her attorney, Ben McGowan, shared this with Hamilton County Schools lawyer Scott Bennett and were told that the Facebook threat didn't take place on school property and the school system doesn't have a duty to act.
"They've said nothing," Sims said.
Bennett did not return phone calls Monday or Tuesday.
Hamilton County school board Chairman Mike Evatt, who was contacted about the incident, said he looked into the matter and learned that punishments were issued. He was in contact with Sims until he received a letter from her lawyer, at which point he turned it over to the schools' own attorney, he said.
"I would rather not comment on it because it is a legal matter now," Evatt said.
The void of information has her frustrated, she said.
Even if the boys can't be expelled, even if she can't know specifics, the school can at least tell her and other parents what's being done to keep students safe and prevent future such offenses, she said.
McGowan said he has contacted the school and Bennett to learn what plans are in place to investigate bullying acts and protect victims but has received little response.
"Bullies flourish in a culture of silence, and the Legislature has figured that out; the parents have figured that out. Drew figured that out and had the guts to come forward," McGowan said. "And it seems like Hamilton County School District [representatives] are the only people yet to take a stand on this."
Staff writer Kevin Hardy contributed to this story.