By Joseph Johnson, Staff Writer
The day was October 6, 2009 and the sun had been up just a short while. All over the city of Joplin, Missouri, children prepared for school, while parents prepared for work. On that morning, at Memorial Middle School on 8th Street, a 13 year old student walked into the building wearing camouflage pants, a dark green trench coat and a “mask” made from an old T-shirt.
He was also armed with an assault rifle.
After firing one round into the ceiling, he then leveled the rifle on Memorial Middle School principal Stephen Gilbreth, and squeezed the trigger. The weapon mis-fired, allowing the brave principal enough time to take control of the situation and usher Thomas White out of the building.
Three years later, White received three concurrent 10-year terms on convictions for two counts of first-degree assault and one count of armed criminal action. In November of 2013 White was ordered by Judge David Mouton to be released. According to White’s attorney, the young man has since taken responsibility for actions that in his own words he describes as “stupid.”
At the time though, his actions were said to be in response to being bullied in school.
Months before Judge Mouton ordered the release of White, a 14 year old Carl Junction, Missouri boy ended his own life. By all accounts, Luke Nugent was an amazing young man with a promising future. Prior to his death, there had been reports that Luke was being bullied on his school bus, and at the school. After his mother Jessica expressed her concerns to her son’s principal, Scott Sawyer, he decided to ride the bus to see for himself what was happening. In a sheriff’s report that came out later, Sawyer stated that, “It was more like it was more of the upper class men giving under classmen a hard time, rather than singling out anyone and bullying them.”
Just how much bullying did Mr. Sawyer believe would occur with the principal on the bus? The answer to that question is moot now.
In recent days, two other alleged instances of bullying have occurred in local school districts. Wendy Estes reported that her 7 year old son Austin was choked while riding a Carthage R9 school bus. In Carterville, MO, 14 year old Brett Demery was beaten so badly at a school bus stop that he suffered broken bones that required surgery.
As concerned citizens, parents, teachers and school administrators, there seems to be a serious mix of playing the blame game, while avoiding accountability. In recent stories appearing in The BEAT, one might easily draw the conclusion that writer John Coy was implying that the schools had dropped the ball in the recent events. If indeed what Austin’s mother Wendy stated is true, that the school district labeled her son’s attack as “horse play”, then there is a serious lack of accountability on Carthage R9’s part.
After John’s initial story came out, several parents contacted The Beat. Here is what three of them wrote:
Karen: “My son attended Carthage schools for 8 years and was horribly bullied. We ended up moving to Joplin in hopes of a fresh start and new beginnings only to have the bullying start back up just as bad if not worse. I GIVE UP ON PUBLIC SCHOOLS and starting homeschooling my son 3 weeks ago. It is absolutely pathetic that there aren’t harsher punishments for these bullies. The physical and mental damage these poor kids go through will last a lifetime. No excuse. Wake up schools”
Sharon: “I too had a son that was in the Carthage schools and was being bullied at school!! He was also bullied on the bus, I now live in Sarcoxie and home-school all of my boys. The bullying has to stop!!!!”
They make valid points, but way too much of the blame is being directed at the schools. Here is what a teacher wrote in response to John’s stories:
“As a teacher, our jobs are already overwhelming with over 100 5th graders that I teach 3 subjects to. Plus all the mandated testing by the state, extra hours to meet title 1 requirements, and my own family to take care of its impossible to prevent all bullying that occurs. I wish I could.”
“When will the parents step in and discipline their own children and teach their own children NOT to be bullies? Why is it the schools responsibility to not only educate children on academics but also personal behavior? As a mom I feel like it is my job to teach my kid right from wrong and the teacher’s job to teach students math, reading, science, and social studies.”
In 2008, during one of their meetings, the Joplin R-8 Board of Education gave preliminary approval to a list of four board goals. Mixed within this list of goals were intentions to increase anti-bullying programs. Although I have never viewed it, I have had several high-school students tell me that the “Ant-Bullying Campaign” put forth by the school district is “a joke.”
I question whether or not it may be a total joke, but bullying has simply been added to the list of “don’ts” that students have shoved down their throats.
“Don’t text and drive”
“Don’t take drugs”
“Don’t drink alcohol”
“Don’t beat the crap out of someone on or off of the school bus.”
I hate to be the bearer of bad news, but simply putting the word “don’t” in front of a negative behavior does little to stop it.
According to statistics* one in four children in the U.S. are bullied on a regular basis, whether at school or on-line. In addition, students in sixth through tenth grade are the most likely to be involved with bullying, either as the bully, victim or both. In other words, kids who are bullied tend to become bullies. One study further revealed that out of 77% of children who are bullied, 14 % have different levels of serious reactions, including: experiencing poor self-esteem, anxiety, reduced school performance, depression and suicidal thoughts that have, too often, led to a student taking their own life.
20% of the students who participated in the study admitted that they had bullied their peers at one time or another. In addition, almost half of all students fear harassment or bullying in the bathroom at school, and as a result, will find excuses for not attending school.
Finally, the numbers indicate that children ages 12-17 believe that hey have seen violence increase at their schools.
Read part two of “The Bully Dilemma” by clicking here.
*Read the statistics and studies by clicking here