News & Politics

Students Protesting Severe Bullying, Suicides Hit With Mass Retaliation by New York School District

Students from Waterloo School District protest bullying policies (Image credit: Megan Fox)

New York school districts have a bad habit of retaliating against students and parents who speak critically of school policies. PJ Media covered the school district that had local radio talk show host Shannon Joy arrested, sending a signal to other vocal parents who confront the schools about unpopular policies. Now, the Waterloo School District in Waterloo, N.Y., is under fire for engaging in mass retaliation against parents and students who have criticized district policies on bullying.

Students walked out of class on Friday and held a protest in support of students who are facing cyberbullying and other incidents of bullying in school, including by teachers, they say. The district locked the children out of the school and refused to allow them transportation home, leading parents to scramble to find them safe rides home.

Now, students are reporting that they’ve been removed from their sports teams and have been suspended from school. Colby Tears, a senior who organized the walkout on Friday, a protest in Waterloo on Sunday, and a sit-in on Monday, told PJ Media he was suspended, along with all the students who took part in the sit-in this morning.

The Waterloo community has suffered four student suicides in the last three years. The most recent was that of Gio Bourne, who was eleven when he took his own life while on a Zoom call. Friends and family say his fellow students bullied Gio to death. Photos of his death were circulated within the school and continue to be shared. The family reports that police say there’s nothing they can do.

Gio’s mother, Angelicia Smith, said she was treated unfairly when she came to a school board meeting to talk about her son and their tragic loss. School board members initially gave Smith more time to speak, as she requested, but then cut her off as her speech turned critical of school policies she says contributed to the death of her son. When Smith heard about the protest at the school, she came to support the kids. What she got in return was this letter from the school, banning her from the property and accusing her of “threatening and defamatory” behavior on social media. Smith still has a child who attends the school.

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PJ Media was on the scene in Waterloo on Sunday listening to parents and students who say they’ve been ignored for too long. Many stories were shared about horrific incidents of physical abuse and cyberbullying that fell on deaf ears. Some of the people we spoke to didn’t want to be identified because the retaliation by the district has been so severe.

Danny, a former student who dropped out of Waterloo over bullying, said that the atmosphere contributed to the loss of his friend Alexis to suicide in 2016. “It’s not just bullying, but abuse,” he said. “There’s a lot of signs our teachers missed.” Danny said that he was sexually abused from the age of 5 until the age of 9 and no one in school noticed. “I’ve only had a couple of teachers slow down and sit down with me and ask me, ‘Danny, why are you acting out?'” Danny said Alexis was bullied by students and no one did anything about it.

Another student told PJ Media that she came to school with bruises and cuts from the age of five and made multiple comments to teachers about what was going on at home. “I was accused of lying. They always believed my parents,” she said. Eventually, after many years, the student was removed from her home and now lives with her grandmother.

A student named Alexa told PJ Media, “I was bullied all of last year and instead of my bully getting in trouble, I was the one who got the consequences.” Some of the taunting the children experienced they wouldn’t even repeat. “I can’t say it, it’s too horrible,” said Alexa.

Much of the online bullying revolves around kids telling other kids to kill themselves. Adults think that blocking a culprit online will stop the abuse, but the kids say it doesn’t. “They make fake accounts! They send their friends after you.”

A 2014 graduate said, “The kids used to send death threats and I took screenshots of them to the principal and they didn’t do anything. I cried every day. I didn’t want to go to school.”

Another student said she skipped classes and ate lunch in the bathroom for a year in middle school and cried every day, calling her mom and begging to go home. “They did nothing about it at all.”

“The teachers sit back and allow it,” said a sophomore.

“A teacher threw my books on the floor and called me worthless,” said one student. “When we tried to have a meeting with the teacher and the principal, they denied us.”

“I’ve had people slap me, punch me, kick me. I went to the middle school principal and was told there was nothing they could do about it,” said Alexa. “I had a handprint on my face.”

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A former student said, “My mom took me out of that school because of the teachers there. I was in first grade and they were treating me [badly].” She continued, “Some teacher grabbed my arm and dragged me down the hallway while my mom was standing right there. She took me out that day.”

“I’ve had a couple of people tell me to commit suicide, that I should go jump off a bridge, or that I’m fat. I’ve filled out DASA reports, but nothing happens,” said another student in the crowd.

DASA refers to the Dignity for All Students Act, which says it “seeks to provide the State’s public elementary and secondary school students with a safe and supportive environment free from discrimination, intimidation, taunting, harassment, and bullying on school property, a school bus and/or at a school function.”

Students and parents can fill out a form to submit to the school when they experience incidents of harassment or bullying. Both students and parents in Waterloo say they don’t know what happens to their complaints after they are submitted, but they are never informed on what action, if any, was taken.

PJ Media even spoke to a woman who graduated from Waterloo 41 years ago and said nothing has changed. “It started in 6th grade for me right here. I graduated in 1980,” she said. “I was pushed down a flight of stairs and broke my hip. Nothing was done.”

Another student said that when he tried to report one of the teachers for bullying him, he was given an in-school suspension. Former student Michael Donaldson said, “When I was in high school I was so depressed when I was there. The teachers and the counselors didn’t really help. It was just a mess. They just told the bullies, ‘don’t say it again,’ which doesn’t help. Something really has to be done before we lose another one.”

Jennifer Marrero told PJM, “I’ve had four kids in Waterloo School District. Every single one of my children was bullied. My nephew is bullied, my brother was bullied, my sister was bullied, and the school does absolutely nothing to help.” Marrero now homeschools her children. “They blame the victim. They do not reprimand children that are in the wrong. All they get is a slap on the wrist.” Marrero said that when her son was physically bullied and finally fought back, administrators punished her son. “Mr. Mitchell [vice principal], Ms. Madonna [principal], and Mrs. Bavis [superintendent] tried to get my son suspended for 20 weeks.”

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Marrero says that the administrators are at fault. “Bavis needs to go. She sweeps things under the rug. She shuts parents out.” One of Morero’s children, who was in attendance at the rally, said that a lunch lady once refused to serve her food. This same complaint was repeated by other children in attendance. “Withholding of food is used as discipline,” said one mother in the crowd. Marrero says that the son of one of the staff threatened her children with shotguns. “I called the school and they did nothing to him. They told me to stop contacting their family.”

Marrero also told PJ Media that she knows of at least one teacher who left the school due to bullying by staff.

Colby Tears has submitted a public information request asking for all the DASA forms that have been submitted over the last few years. He says the suspension isn’t going to stop him from taking action. “If anything, this is giving us more opportunity to organize and do something else,” he said.

Suicide prevention professional Donna Besler-Tatem, who works with suicidal kids, told PJM that the school’s response could be negligent. “I’m very concerned with the [Waterloo] School District. They have a real problem on their hands. Something needs to be done.”

Besler-Tatem says taking away sports from suffering kids is the wrong move. “I’ve seen kids go from severely depressed to a whole different child when they were playing these sports,” she said. “What they just did by pulling those kids out of sports, they just became part of this issue. If any of those kids take their lives, I would tell [the school] they’re a big part of the puzzle.”

The school district put out a statement that read, in part:

The protest went on for several hours and caused substantial fear to the school community. Students shouted obscenities at the administrators who were outside supervising them. Students marched around the high school and middle school campus pounding on windows and shouting, causing a substantial disruption to the instruction that was going on in the building. Students inside the school who were not protesting outside or who came inside because they were made to feel uncomfortable with the tone the protest took, shared with teachers they were being berated and bullied by the student protestors outside of school. Many of these students expressed concern about returning to school on Monday to face these classmates.

PJ Media reviewed the live streams from several different people who attended the event and could not confirm any of the behavior the district described. Parents at Sunday’s march insist that none of it was true. “It was a very peaceful march,” said Smith. “We had one child knock on a window and everyone made that stop immediately.”

Sunday’s march was also peaceful, without any incidents of profanity or vandalism. Waterloo students want to be heard and they have a lot to say.

PJ Media reached out to the school for comment but was unable to get anyone to answer the phone.