WINTER HAVEN — A fourth grader at Elbert Elementary School was surrounded and hit by half a dozen boys in her class, but the school failed to notify the girl’s parents about the attack and then failed to protect the girl from a second incident.
“They never called us,” said Kristopher Alexander, the 10-year-old girl’s godmother.
According to Alexander and a report from the Winter Haven Police Department, it started at lunch on March 12 when a 12-year-old and several others allegedly threatened to beat her up if she didn’t eat all her lunch. They also criticized her for how much she eats.
The class went to P.E. after lunch and, according to the witnesses interviewed in the police report, that’s when the 12-year-old told his friends, “Get her, just like in the movies.” The boys surrounded her and hit and kicked her in the back and chest.
Alexander said the oldest boy has been bullying the girl most of the school year by repeatedly making fun of her weight. She also said the P.E. teacher, despite several witnesses telling her what happened, told the girl, “I can’t believe it if I did not see it,” according to the girl. Alexander said the teacher had been on her phone.
The students’ regular classroom teacher sent the girl to the clinic and the office but, because construction in the neighborhood interrupted landline phone service to the school, school officials did not call her parents. A text shared with The Ledger by Alexander shows Polk County School Superintendent Jacqueline Byrd expressed concern.
“I am glad that your daughter is doing better; however, an assault during school should not have occurred,” Byrd wrote. “This is not to be tolerated at school any time.”
School District spokesman Jason Geary said they regret any delays in communicating with the parents.
“Our staff strive to inform students’ families as soon as possible when they become aware of an incident at school,” Geary wrote in an email. “In this situation, nearby construction did interrupt phone service at Elbert Elementary.”
Byrd alerted Regional Superintendent Michelle Townley so she could review the situation with the principal, William Dawson.
Following an investigation, the police report shows Dawson suspended all six boys for seven days. The older one has also been charged with misdemeanor battery by the Winter Haven Police Department and recommended for Teen Court. It is up to the State Attorney’s Office to file official charges or send the boy to the diversion program. If a diversion program is successfully completed, the charge would be removed from his record.
Geary said that reports of alleged bullying are investigated and, if determined to be true, an action plan is developed that can “use a wide range of measures to address a particular situation,” including:
Changing students’ schedules. Pairing the victim with another child who does not support bullying. Referring students to counselors to help them learn effective coping skills. Having students check-in/check-out with a trusted adult. Creating a “Stay Away” agreement. Providing additional education for students. “There can be counseling for students — including the student being bullied and the student exhibiting the bullying behavior,” Geary said. “All schools have counselors who are trained to help both bullies and targeted students. There are other personnel who can also provide support, including individuals from our bully prevention team and school social workers.”
Jim Maxwell, the district’s senior manager of psychological services, said the bully’s parents would have to agree to counseling for their child.
In addition, all teachers and administrators are required to participate in training on bullying every year. There are also social workers who assist schools with all aspects of anti-bullying. Students are taught an anti-bullying lesson once a year.
Alexander said Dawson spoke with the family about transferring the girl to a different classroom or using a Hope Scholarship to transfer her to another school. But Alexander questioned why the girl should be moved away from her friends, with whom she has attended school since kindergarten, when it is the bullies who should be moved.
“In general, our policy would be to move a student displaying bullying behavior,” Maxwell said. “However, situations are handled on a case-by-case basis, and there may be instances and circumstances where a different approach would be more appropriate.”
Instead, on April 4, when the class had a substitute teacher, the boys were allowed to go to P.E. with the girl, something the principal said would not happen, according to Alexander. The 12-year-old boy kicked a kickball into the girl’s face.
“My concern is the lack of communication, broken promises and the harassment that (my daughter) has been getting since coming back to school,” the girl’s mother wrote in an email.
School Board member Lisa Miller questioned what the district is doing.
“How are we protecting children?” she asked, disheartened. “We as a district need to do better — we as a district need to be more proactive to this mental health crisis. We cannot pretend that we’re not in a crisis with children’s mental health.”
She noted that the district has a team of bullying liaisons, but they have to be invited onto campus by the school principal.
“We have got to make our strategic plan centered on the whole child — there’s no system that supports the emotional (well-being) of children. I’m hoping we can change it as a district. I really do want (Polk County) to be the beacon in the state.”