By Nikki McKim
On Monday, November 28, eight community members ranging from a state senator to local law enforcement gathered together with one common goal, to better protect our youth.
Sheriff Hardesty, Senator Julie Slama, County Commissioner Rick Karas and HTRS staff members, Superintendent Dr. George Griffith, Principal Lisa Othmer, Assistant Principal Kari Lottman and Guidance Counselor Brittany Rogers, met to look to each other and the community for help.
It’s no secret that bullying and cyberbullying have significantly risen in the age of social media and cell phones, but one local school has noticed a rise in the problem and would like to see a change.
Bullying complaints are increasing at Humboldt Table-Rock Steinauer School and even with the most abundant protocols and strategies in place to prevent this type of behavior, it hasn’t slowed down.
This year HTRS started a school resource program funded 100 percent by them after several incidents over the last two years resulted in serious felony citations to students that stemmed from phone-related incidents. The deputy is in the school while in session to help alleviate some of the strain on the administrators.
Sheriff Hardesty said HTRS is the only school they are involved in within the county and after writing several felony tickets, it hasn’t stopped the bullying problem.
HTRS certainty isn’t the only school with this type of problem, but Hardesty says, “we’re the school that wants to put it out front and say, ‘hey, we have this problem. Sitting back and doing nothing is not the answer.’”
In 2020 the Cyberbullying Research Center surveyed 1,034 9-12 year old’s across the United States and found that 15 percent of them had been cyberbullied while three percent had cyberbullied others. In a 2021 survey of approximately 2,500 middle and high schoolers, 45.5 percent said they had been cyberbullied during their lifetime, while 23.2 have cyberbullied others within the previous 30 days.
“Enough is enough; the school has its policies and they do their part, but we don’t have a dog in the fight. We can’t legally do anything,” said Sheriff Hardesty. “I personally am not looking to charge some kid with all these felonies to where the parents have to pay for the court costs, citation, counseling, probation, whatever. I would like to see some long-term education on bullying as far as being sympathetic and apologetic.”
HTRS Superintendent Dr. George Griffith says the definition of bullying needs to be clarified.
“Two kids are going back and forth; that’s not bullying; that’s conflict. But what we have when we get a group of boys together or girls,” he trailed off. “Retaliation is the focus.” Students tell him that they will let him know when they get tired enough to let him step in, but until then, they don’t want the problem addressed due to retaliation fears.
“That’s the biggest thing that keeps kids from coming in and saying something because nothing gets done, the kid gets talked to, but then it gets worse, then they don’t come back and talk to you,” said Dr. Griffith.
“Everyone has a breaking point, you know, at what point, whether it’s, they try to hang themselves, they shoot themselves, they take medication, or they come to school and take care of the problem themselves because they don’t feel that the school is doing something,” said Hardesty.
They say that some students don’t see what they do as bullying. Calling fellow students names or commenting on their hygiene in front of a group of students can alter people’s perception of that person, then it becomes confrontational. Hardesty says that’s when the victim often reacts badly and the police intervene. They acknowledge that kids won’t change something they don’t feel is wrong. Hardesty said this is where he believes counseling and further bullying education could be beneficial.
Principal Lisa Othmer said HTRS has an attorney come in each year to talk to the students about digital citizenship and bullying and what can happen when you break the law. But, “it doesn’t stick.” These types of issues have only increased.
Sheriff Hardesty said the biggest problem with bullying is cell phones. It’s taking pictures and threatening people through Snapchat, a social media program that features photographs and messages that are only available for a short time before they become inaccessible to the recipients.
But the school can only do so much regarding cell phones. Unless it’s a school-sanctioned event, it’s up to the parents.
Cyberbullying and traditional bullying can be very different. Cyberbullying can be done anonymously and go viral. Once it goes viral, it can include the eyes of the school, community or world.
HTRS has a cellphone policy that phones should not be used during school. Falls City Public has the same approach. At HTRS, phones are to be turned off once students arrive at school and placed in a Yondr Pouch, the same type of pouch now used at concerts. The students may keep their pouch with them throughout the day, but the pouch may only be opened with a particular device. If the pouch is scratched or damaged, as if the student has tried to open it themselves, they must purchase another.
But the issue remains.
The school lawyer said extra-curricular activities could be taken away because they are a privilege for students, not a right. School Counselor Brittany Rogers said this is when parents get upset.
Principal Othmer said there had been increased awareness about the social emotional needs of kids at the state level.
Right now, HTRS has a social-emotional interventionist. There are three tiers. Tier one would be the guidance counselor and weekly visits with the class to educate them on these issues. A social-emotional screener is used to highlight the kids at a higher risk for bullying behavior or who may be a victim; then, they might be referred for a tier two intervention. That would be a one-on-one or small group setting to talk about ways to cope. Tier three would include disciplinary actions, a higher level of counseling and licensed therapist time (which HTRS has).
“I feel like we’re doing all the right things,” said Othmer.
Senator Julie Slama said she’s seen how “neutered” the laws for juveniles have become. The Sheriff’s Department is writing felony citations for revenge porn and felony sexual harassment and “there’s no teeth to these laws” because these kids are juveniles.
“It’s because of people who, I’m sure at the time meant well, wanted to see laws walked back for juveniles to give them second chances and to give them structure and there’s no structure that’s taken the place of the justice system beyond a couple of facilities,” said Senator Slama.
Hardesty said usually when there is a crime committed by a juvenile, they call probation. Probation has a scoring system and they have to meet a criteria. If a child isn’t on probation, they’ve been in trouble but taken diversion programs and commit a felony offense, it may not score enough and they’re turned back over to their guardian.
Senator Slama said she would see what she could do to help.
“I’m more than ready to go to bat on this. Because this what we’re talking about when we’re talking about getting young people to stay in the area and having an environment they enjoyed growing up in is a huge part of that,” said Slama.
“Our kids are the best of the best,” said Rogers. “Everyone in the building has rights, not just the kids who are out of control. Everyone in the building has a right to an education.”