Bullying across NELA: No school district is immune
Growing up in Choudrant, Louisiana, Megan Annie Poole experienced bullying every single year of her scholastic life, from kindergarten through college.
In the third grade, a peer beat her with a rubber jump rope as a teacher sat back and watched. Once when entering the school bathroom, a group of girls shoved her into a stall. In addition to physical assaults, fellow students called Poole derogatory terms and told her to kill herself. After reaching the ninth grade, she dropped out to join the Youth Challenge program, where counselors helped her grapple with her experiences and the depression that followed. Even now, at age 27, she still has nightmares about the harassment she endured for years.
"It lives with you," Poole said. "It's one of those things that sticks with you for the rest of your life."
Poole's experience is one of many similar ones in Northeast Louisiana.
In Franklin Parish, fighting and cyberbullying is so much of a concern runs that Franklin Parish High School hosted its first anti-bullying rally on Oct. 2 for everyone to take part. Most notably, one student in Ruston is now the subject of a lawsuit that claims he endured verbal and physical bullying, as well as sexual battery, over the past school year at Cedar Creek School. This report brought countless other past stories of bullying at Cedar Creek and elsewhere to the surface.
"Bullying is everywhere in the world," Poole said. "It's in school, in workplaces. It's in public. It's even through family."
In Louisiana, 19.3% of high school students have experienced bullying, according to a 2019 survey from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. When looking at the disparity between sexes, 21.4% of Louisiana high school female students reported being bullied. Meanwhile, 16.7% of Louisiana's high school male students said they have been bullied.
M. Volentine, a ninth grader at Franklin Parish High, said she experienced bullying in the seventh grade in the form of insults concerning her body.
Franklin Parish High School only released students' first initials and last names out of consideration for their privacy.
Franklin Parish High senior N. Mason said in elementary school, she was pushed down the stairs, called names and had peers pulling her hair. In addition to the verbal and physical harassment, she experienced sexual assault.
Despite these occurrences, Mason kept it all to herself, just as 64% of bullying victims do, according to a study by the Regional Educational Laboratory Northeast and Islands. She could not bring herself to tell her grandmother or anyone else. Mason said she eventually experienced feelings of not belonging and contemplated suicide.
"Something told me not to because something better might come into your life," Mason said.
Stopbullying.gov, an online anti-bullying resource managed by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, reports that bullying can have long-lasting effects on anyone involved. Those who are bullied are more likely to experience depression and anxiety, health complications and lesser academic achievement. Children who bully have increased risk of substance abuse, criminal activity, early sexual activity and relationship abuse. Bystanders have higher chances of substance use, mental health problems and missing school.
Officials from Ouachita Parish Schools and Monroe City Schools both say their districts, though not devoid of bullying, are able to keep it under control. Monroe City Schools Superintendent Brent Vidrine said state-mandated training for anti-bullying and suicide prevention has helped prepare teachers and staff for when issues arise. Additionally, the district works with its Child Welfare and Attendance Office and the Monroe Police Department to bring programming to the students on bullying, sexual harassment and suicide awareness.
"A lot of times, we never know or are the last ones to know, so our job is to make sure that we're being very vigilant, paying attention and having outlets for kids — making sure that we talk to them about it," Vidrine said.
Most bullying in the district occurs on social media, Vidrine said. Students from the district, as well as adults and students from other districts, have made online posts that sometimes affect what's happening inside the classroom. However, when outside issues are brought to school, Vidrine said the district notifies the Monroe Police Department.
Jennifer Nichols, interim director of safety and security for Ouachita Parish Schools, said so far there have only been two reports of bullying this school year, both of which were minor cases. She said there is a system of documentation in place that usually deters cases of bullying from escalating. First reports of bullying are reported on a form; this is followed by an investigation where all parties are interviewed individually, parents are contacted and discipline is administered. If there is a second report, Nichols said they have to file a report with the state.
"Usually the parents know that if this happens again, it's going to be turned in to the state," Nichols said. "It would follow the child, and it could even result in expulsion from school, so we do take it really seriously."
Ouachita Parish Schools gives students and parents the option of anonymously reporting bullying via their website, and all reports this school year have come from this online form. The district is also partnering with Crime Stoppers to bring in an additional avenue for the community to report bullying. All someone would have to do is scan a barcode and make the report using their phone.
At Franklin Parish High, the students are helping take up the mission of bullying prevention and intervention. Volentine and Mason, along with their fellow members of the Franklin Parish High Junior Reserve Officers' Training Corps, chose anti-bullying as the focus of this year's service project. Their teacher, Army Master Sgt. Emma Jones Blackshire, said the cadets have been spending their time learning about anti-bullying measures they can then share with the community.
"As a parent, as a teacher and being from this community, it upsets me, and it bothers me to see or hear about children suffering in this way," Blackshire said. "We can educate our children on what bullying is and what to do."
The cadets have learned about spotting different signs of bullying and to be as precise as possible when reporting a bullying incident. They also discussed what to do when reporting isn't effective the first time, to continue working up the chain of command and reporting the bullying until something is done about it.
Once they complete all their lessons on anti-bullying, Blackshire said the JROTC cadets will help disseminate anti-bullying literature to other schools in the district to share the knowledge they've gained.
"I just hope that this project will be a great success for Franklin Parish," Mason said. "I hope everybody talks about it... I just hope everything will be OK."
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