By the time her son was violently assaulted at school, a mother of a Kalama High School junior said she could see trouble coming.
“I knew it was going to happen to a child, eventually,” said Natasha Wheeler, whose son Jesse, who identifies as non-binary, was hospitalized with a severe concussion and memory loss last June.
Wheeler said the assault, which was eventually charged as a hate crime, was the result of ceaseless bullying by a few students targeting LGBTQ students.
“It’s been hate speech, she said. “Discriminatory, targeted hate speech.”
Wheeler says it happened one day after the final bell rang, when Jesse stood up to a student who had been taunting her son and a transgender partner with homophobic slurs.
“And then (another) kid jumped in,” Wheeler said.
School surveillance video shows another student who was not involved jumping in. The video shows Jesse wrestled to the ground and punched in the face multiple times.
“He was knocked out cold,” she said. Video then shows the other student kicking Jesse — who was on the ground — in the head. A severe concussion left Jake in the hospital with no memory of what happened.
“When I came home to wake up my husband, I called the police to report it. They didn’t know,” Wheeler said.
The student who kicked Jesse was eventually expelled from school, but Wheeler said she had tried to explain the building conflicts and harassment toward her son and other LGBTQ students to school administrators several times before the assault.
“Jesse started the LGBTQ club at the school,” Wheeler said. “It didn’t exist until we came here.”
Wheeler requested two meetings with school administrators before the assault, asking them to take control of the harassment.
“It’s repetitive,” she said. “It’s the same kids. Yet nothing has been done about it. Their response was literally, ‘our hands are tied by the right to an education law that we have in Washington,’” she said. “It protects them to the point where they don’t fear any repercussions.”
Education is regarded as a basic constitutional right in Washington, and students cannot be removed from a school without due process of law.
In Kalama and other districts, students are able to report bullying anonymously by scanning a QR code, which sends the report directly to school administrators. Wheeler says none of the reports eased the harassment of her son and other LGBTQ students.
“(Bullies) are hiding under the cover of the right to an education law. It needs to be changed. It needs to be amended, Wheeler said.
Wheeler filed a grievance with the district, enlisting help from the state Governor’s Office of the Education Ombuds, or OEO, which provides free legal and even emotional support for parents and students to help resolve conflicts within schools.
“I think there’s a problem when students are being bullied, and then they’re expected to heal on their own and learn? Guess what? They’re not learning.” said Erin Jones, an education consultant who was a teacher for 32 years, honored as State Educator of the Year, and narrowly lost a race for Washington state superintendent of public education, losing by 1 percentage point in 2016.
Recently, Jones has been in demand around the state as a public motivational speaker with an emphasis on solving bullying and harassment, along with racial and equity issues in schools.
“This last year I’ve been called into more buildings than ever in my career to help schools address bullying towards queer students, students who identify as LGBTQIA, students who are Black, and students who identify as recent immigrants, “Jones said. “Those three populations of students which have been targeted in schools in Washington state more than I’ve ever seen in my career.”
She believes bullying policies and even state law must be reformed, and be more consistent across districts.
“Even if the student is suspended or expelled for a little while they eventually get to come back,” Jones said. “So it really feels like there are no consequences, and by law we never get to hear what the consequences are. So it can very much feel to the student who was bullied like nothing happened. (The bully is) back here! There’s no consequences! And even if there are consequences, often that kid repeats the offense.”
Jones says Wheeler did the right thing by calling OEO.
“The word ombuds means mediator, bridge builder,” Jones said.
But she added the ultimate bridge builder to potentially make an impact on the problem of bullying is a repair method called “restorative practices.” It’s a method involving an accused bully and a victim meeting to safely speak to each other, with a mediator guiding the process.
“Getting those two students in a room, working through it, making amends, when schools have restorative practices in place, that is the only way that I’ve seen a student being held accountable, but also a student being able to say ‘OK, this kid does feel sorry for that they did. This kid is going to change their behavior,”’ Jones said.
In a study by the RAND Corporation, researchers found restorative practices achieved positive effects in several school systems around the U.S., including a reduction in suspension rates, and fewer reports of bullying.
After the assault in June, staff members at Kalama schools started training in restorative justice, and will practice the method this school year.
“In many cases, they need to be able to see the humanity of that other student, and that only happens when you can look each other face to face and really see the harm that you’ve done,” Jones said.
Restorative practice is incorporated into policy at school districts scattered around the state, but Jones says more educators need to understand its potential.
“If we don’t have restorative practices in place for students to work through it, this stuff will permeate the community,” Jones said
The incidents in June inspired policy changes at Kalama High School, which has vowed to be more welcoming to vulnerable students.
According to Nick Shanmac with the Kalama School District, the amended policy now calls out specific unacceptable, targeting behaviors.
Additionally, the district revised its HIB (Harassment, Intimidation or Bullying) reporting form and the district is now in the process of increasing communication related to it, according to Shanmac.
There is also a new “Climate & Culture” webpage to regularly inform families about what the district is doing to cultivate a more welcoming environment. The page will also be used to share behavioral incident data so that the community can measure progress with law enforcement included in the process.
Another change is that the district will now require school administrators to fill out an addendum to the HIB form if behavioral patterns are present or if violations involve vulnerable students.
Wheeler is pushing for awareness, so students and parents understand the urgent need to see the humanity that binds students, instead of reacting violently to what makes us different.
“I’m just going to keep pushing. Something’s going to change,” Wheeler said.
©2022 Cox Media Group