MONMOUTH — Katherine Murphy’s daughter has yet to reach her 7th birthday and is already an experienced hand around her family’s horse farm.
But the kindergartner who fearlessly pulls 1,200-pound horses from the stables and introduces the animals to groups that gather for lessons, is petrified every morning by the sound of passing buses because she knows they signal another day of bullying at the Henry L. Cottrell School is about to begin.
“Sunday nights it’s, ‘I have a headache. I have a stomachache,'” Murphy said. “‘I don’t want to go to school.’ I’ve seen my daughter threatened. I’ve seen other students hit. I’ve seen the disruption it causes.”
Murphy’s story became a familiar theme Monday night among the approximately 40 parents who gathered at the school to discuss what they perceive to be ongoing bullying at the pre-kindergarten through third-grade school.
“This has been a reputable school district,” said Amanda Turner, whose son attends kindergarten at the school. “It’s hard to see this going on.”
School officials called the meeting after hearing from frustrated parents who have said that repeated complaints to teachers, Principal Deborah Emery and Regional School Unit 2 Superintendent Virgel Hammonds have gone unheeded.
Emery, Hammonds and several teachers also attended the meeting.
Parents described repeated, targeted behaviors against their children, involving both physical contact and verbal abuse. Many of those students responsible for the alleged behavior are in special behavioral programs at the school, Murphy and Turner agreed. The students are assigned adult assistants, but remain in the traditional classrooms.
Murphy, who works in a behavioral education program at another RSU, said the Cottrell School fails to provide clear expectations accompanied by equally understandable consequences and rewards. Without that, Murphy said, the students behave in ways that are easily taken for bullying, particularly by young children.
“To her, it’s scary,” Murphy said of her daughter.
Turner said her son, who excelled in pre-kindergarten programs for two years, said parents who spend time at the school have noticed her son crying or acting aggressively. She believes the changes are in response to regular intimidation and threatening.
“He’s a completely different kid,” Turner said. “Now, if he makes a mistake, he hits himself and calls himself stupid.”
Turner said she has been unable to get answers from her son about what has happened at school or what is troubling him.
“He says, ‘I can’t remember,'” Turner said. “My child has a memory like an elephant.”
Turner said she approached Emery with her concerns, but the principal claimed her child’s behavior had not changed.
“They need to nip it in the bud and stop ignoring it,” Turner said. “I hope there’s some kind of plan to end the bullying. I hope they take ownership and fix it.”
But Hammonds said it will take time to put together such a plan. He committed to meeting with the parents every month toward that end.
“This is not something we’re going to solve today,” he said. “It’s about making sure we’re as helpful to each of you as we can be from this point forward.”
Much of the meeting was aimed at gathering information. Parents and teachers described the behaviors they had seen and heard and defined what makes behaviors bullying. Working in small groups they created a list of ideas that parents, students and the school can put into practice to help encourage better behavior. Many of those ideas revolved around better communication from the school to parents of the alleged bullies and to parents of the victims.
Scott Webb, who claims another girl bullied his daughter for months, said he met repeatedly with school and RSU administrators. The behavior stopped only when Webb, through a mutual friend, reached out to the father of the other girl.
“The next day his daughter came to school, sought my daughter out, and apologized over and over again,” Webb said. “That could have been easily resolved had the parent been notified.
“It all starts at home. If the parent isn’t notified that kind of behavior is going on, they can’t stop it.”
Webb claimed the father never heard from the school that there was a problem.
Emery, citing confidentiality laws, declined to discuss any specific students, behaviors or discipline. She did pass out forms that are filled out when an incident occurred. Certain behaviors, such as a physical altercation and cases of verbal threatening, can and have led to suspensions, Emery said.
Still, she believes bullying is a type of behavior that can provide “teachable moments” to help explain to the child why the behavior is unacceptable and help guide them to making better choices.
“We don’t often call it bullying because when you put words in the mouths of children that’s who they become,” said guidance councilor Priscilla Thompson.
While understanding of the school’s goal to help every child learn and behave properly, parents expressed concern that the effort to reach every child could come at a heavy cost to others.
“How many teachable moments do we allow?” asked parent Karen Ainsworth. “I was on the receiving end of teachable moments my entire academic career. I don’t want my children to go through that.”
Craig Crosby — 621-5642