Staci Elder Hensley | September 24, 2018
Oklahoma students, parents testify on school bullying
Staci Elder Hensley
Hard statistics and program options, interspersed with moving personal stories from victims, were featured during an interim study on school bullying conducted on Sept. 11 in the Senate Education Committee at the request of state Sen. Rob Standridge (R-Norman).
A broad range of speakers addressed the complex issue, providing information on state and national research on bullying, programs that successfully combat the problem, and how some of Oklahoma’s charter schools and private schools are providing the hardest-hit victims and their parents with safe, high-quality, and personally tailored education options.
Many of the meeting’s attendees, including Sen. Standridge and other senators, recalled being bullied in school themselves or witnessing such behavior. Social media “has thrown gasoline on the fire” of this issue, Standridge said, noting that both verbal and physical attacks are much more severe than in past decades.
What They’ve Endured
Moving testimonials were given by a number of students and their parents who shared personal experiences with bullying and how the ability to change schools has transformed their lives.
One of the most poignant speakers was Alexis Russell, who has Asperger’s Syndrome and other developmental issues. She transferred from public school to the online Epic Charter School after severe bullying that began when she was a 7th grader. Over several years, the daily torment from her peers escalated from verbal to physical attacks. Complaints to school officials fell on deaf ears, and she became depressed and suicidal. She was eventually hospitalized multiple times for stress-related health problems. Transferring to Epic, she said, saved her life, and she graduated in the top five percent of her class.
“I felt helpless as a mother. I cried with her and for her, but I refused to give up,” said Alexis’s mother, Tiffany Odom. “Enrolling her in Epic Charter School was a choice to protect and save my daughter.”
David Chaney, Epic superintendent and co-founder, also presented a video, “This Is Me,” with testimonials from Russell and other bullied students who have found success through its program. “This is a statewide issue, not just an urban issue,” he said. “Epic’s virtual charter schools serve over 25,000 Oklahoma students, and (bullying) is one of the main reasons people look for this option.”
Another highly emotional presentation came from student Seth Sutherlin and his mother, Jennifer. Seth also suffers from Asperger’s and other cognitive issues, and his bullying began in second grade when he suffered broken ribs after being assaulted on the playground. The bullying came from fellow students and escalated over several years. He also experienced it from teachers, his mother said, several of whom either ridiculed Seth in the classroom or ignored bullying episodes they personally witnessed. Seth consequently developed severe depression, anxiety, and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). After more than 32 significant incidents—including many where he was seriously injured and/or punished for defending himself, his mother said—Seth transferred to Paths to Independence, a nonprofit private school in Bartlesville for students with autism.
“This gave him an opportunity to heal,” Jennifer Sutherlin said. “I feel safe now at school,” Seth added. “I no longer have to look over my shoulder.”
After years spent unsuccessfully attempting to get school officials to address the problem, Sutherlin also began consulting with attorneys seeking a way to hold staff and administrators accountable for her son’s abuse. The family eventually ended up with a court settlement.
“It was never about the money; it was about justice for my son,” Sutherlin said. “What happened to him is wrong. (Bullying) is truly a serious subject that really can become life-threatening.”
“I feel safe now at school. I no longer have to look over my shoulder.” —Seth Sutherlin
It’s Important to Have Options
State Sen. Gary Stanislawski (R-Tulsa), chairman of the Senate Education Committee, said safety issues are spurring enrollment growth in schools other than traditional district schools. “Slightly over 40 percent of all students who choose a full-time virtual charter school or a private school often make that choice because they feel bullied or unsafe in their own school,” he said in an interview after the interim study. “That’s why I feel it’s very important that our state supports parents and provides alternative choices so that every child can feel safe and learn in an environment that works for them.”
State Sen. Micheal Bergstrom (R-Adair), a former public school teacher, agreed that virtual schools are an important option. "I have had conversations with students who opted for virtual charter schools for a variety of reasons, from having been bullied to family issues to just having fallen behind,” he said. “The attitude of the students and parents I have known is that the virtual education met their needs. While I was a classroom teacher for two decades and I strongly support traditional schools, I know that virtual schools offer those students who are either feeling mistreated or who struggle in a traditional school, for whatever reason, with a different path to educational success.”
"What is best for the student and the student's family should always be our top priority,” he added. “Our job is to make every education path the best it can be."
Bullying Is Everywhere
The problem isn’t just in Oklahoma; it’s a nationwide problem that’s led to school violence, teenage depression, and suicide attempts.
In 2005, Oklahoma participated in a groundbreaking Centers for Disease Control (CDC) study surveying children, administrators, and teachers across the state who worked with 3rd, 5th, and 7th graders. Nineteen percent reported experiencing significant emotional, physical, or sexual bullying. That percentage increases and bullying intensifies as students enter high school, said Trish Hughes, Ph.D., who’s an associate professor of health and human performance at Oklahoma State University and studies the subject.
In addition to its toll on the victims, Hughes pointed out that the long-term fallout of bullying costs the state significant dollars due to absenteeism, mental health care, treatment of physical injuries, a lack of connectedness with others, a higher dropout rate, and a strong potential for further violence that can result in incarceration for the perpetrators and victims as they grow into adulthood. (Many bullying victims become aggressive in self-defense.)
Despite the adoption of earlier state statutes and policies, Sen. Standridge said, more is needed to address the issue effectively.
“We need to examine what possible solutions may be, whether it means giving the student more options or providing a top-down code of conduct that leads our children in the right direction, or some combination of the two,” he said. “We must not sit by and let another child take their life because we failed to adopt policies that could have prevented such a desperate act.”
Staci Elder Hensley
Former newspaper reporter Staci Elder Hensley is a freelance writer, editor, and columnist. A graduate of the University of Oklahoma, she is a former news coordinator for both the Oklahoma Tourism and Recreation Department and the University of Oklahoma Health Sciences Center. She served as a regular columnist for The Daily Oklahoman and Distinctly Oklahoma magazine, and her credits also include articles produced for multiple state and national publications, including The Journal Record, The New York Times, The Dallas Morning News, and others.