This sign hangs in the lobby of the Dade Board of Education office. What does it mean? Bully-free zone or a free zone for bullies? The jury's out on that one as parent and local journalist Summer Kelley challenges the B of E to address bullying problems at Dade Middle School that she says have sent her children to the hospital and herself to seek legal advice.
Pointing out the obvious is an important function of journalism and one that is in any case difficult for the journalist to resist. So it was that Summer Kelley, who has covered the Dade County Board of Education for many years--first for The Dade County Sentinel and then for Discover Dade's online newspaper--stood up at the B of E's Monday night meeting to point out that despite the schools' professed zero-tolerance policy toward bullying, her own children have been brutalized in Dade schools and on Dade school buses to the point she and her husband had at one point sought legal counsel.
The bullying incidents she detailed in her address to the board seemed mostly centered at Dade Middle School, where Ms. Kelley said first her son was beaten and thrown against a locker, then her daughter victimized so viciously and so systematically that she withdrew the girl from DMS and sent her to finish school in the Midwest, living with her sister -- a remedy that worked until the girl missed her friends and came back for
"She was taunted and ridiculed by a group of girls who on one occasion held her up off the ground in the bathroom and slapped her in the face," said Ms. Kelley. The girls taunted her daughter with aspersions as to her sexual orientation, beat her head against the asphalt of the back parking lot, and stole her backpack so that she received failing grades for not turning in her work.
"The students weren't the only bullies," said Ms. Kelly. "She had one teacher say in front of the entire class that she got on her nerves and would be better off if she'd just stayed gone. Another teacher nicknamed her Miss Obnoxious."
The girl became withdrawn, her grades suffered and she was treated by a counselor for depression as well as by emergency room personnel for contusions related to the back-parking-lot beating, said Ms. Kelley.
Ms. Kelley said that Dade principals and administrators had consistently tried to fix the situation and that she did not blame the current school superintendent, Dr. Jan Harris, for a problem that had endured through four superintendents and several principals.
Previous superintendent Shawn Tobin, said Ms. Kelley, had been extremely helpful and had in fact planned sweeping policy changes, but had left before these were implemented. "If not for Mr. Tobin and the procedures he intended throughout the school system, the board would have been speaking with us and the attorney we hired in Atlanta," she said.
Ms. Kelley (right) said with that with the new administration, things were looking up but that there were still gaps and her family was again suffering as a result. "Our youngest son is now enduring the same issues at the middle school," she said. "He has repeatedly been called names such as fag, faggot, queer, moron and other words I cannot repeat."
After each incident, administrators did address the situation, she said, but it has persisted. "Now my son is coming home with knots and bruises on his body where a group of boys are punching, kicking, pinching him and sitting on him on the bus," she said. "We reported this incident and were told the cameras aren't working."
"Cameras aren't working" had been a constant refrain earlier with the older children, she said.
"The problems continue and another one of my children is hurting because of it," said Ms. Kelley.
It was not meant as a conclusion but Board of Education Chairman Carolyn Bradford called time at that point. Before allowing Ms. Kelley to speak, Ms. Bradford had specified that members of the public are only allowed to speak for five minutes. Ms. Kelley had spoken for 10. Ms. Kelley explained that she had reserved another five-minute slot for her son -- prior notification is one of the strictures imposed on members of public who wish to speak to the B of E -- who would have read the remainder of her typed statement, but that the boy had lost his nerve.
Ms. Kelley spent a considerable percentage of her allotted minutes reading a lengthy legal definition of bullying. Ms. Bradford herself had spent a sizeable hunk of time before Ms. Kelley's address reading out a litany of limitations on public input to the board. Board members may not be addressed directly and may not themselves respond to anything the public may say.
Though Ms. Kelley was not allowed to finish, after the meeting she provided The Planet the remainder of her typed statement, which amounted to what she was petitioning the board of education to do about the bullying situation. Her requests included teacher supervision on buses, training staff to identify bullying and implementing strict procedures to handle and investigate bullying incidents.
As per the rules, board members reacted in no way to Ms. Kelley's statement but Superintendent Harris invited her to stop by her office and discuss the matter privately.
On a more cheerful note, Dr. Harris and the board recognized Dade High student Bryce Nethery (pictured at right with Dr. Harris) for his selection to serve on the Georgia 2016-2017 Student Advisory Council. The students, 108 of them statewide, were chosen on the strength of their essays about public education and will serve as student advisors/liaisons to the state superintendent of schools.
"I was so excited that we have a voice at the state level," said Dr. Harris.
Administrator Billy Hooker reported to the board on physical maintenance and improvements to the schools as the school year revs up. He said the air conditioning at the schools were blessedly operational by now. "We've had some complaints about it being too cold but I'm not addressing that yet," he said.
Hooker also said that the system was doing its best to avoid letting outside work at the county's two elementary schools cause traffic snarls. "We don't want to clog up the arteries in the town," he said. "We've tried to think through the situation." He said adjustments will be made as needed but that morning traffic to and from the schools should be less of a problem than the afternoon.
The board of education posted a traffic flow diagram with other local media outlets for public dissemination though unaccountably it did not do so with The Planet. In any case, Hooker said changes at Davis should be substantially finished by Thursday whereas at Dade Elementary work should be over in about two weeks.
Hooker reported, too, on work on the middle school's proposed running track. It had been decided to utilize the old football field to make the new track long enough that two laps around it would make it suitable for middle school competitions, three laps for high school meets.
After a 37-minute executive -- or closed-door -- session to discuss personnel, the board voted to accept the resignations of Dade Elementary custodian Missy Atchley and Dade High special education paraprofessional Betty McCurdy; grant the request for leave of Dade Middle teacher Kristen Green; hire Christi Hurley as a special education paraprofessional at Dade Middle, Kristen Case and Amanda Pardue as district substitute teachers and Frances Taylor as a district special education aide; and accept a transfer request by Renae Powell from cafeteria manager at Davis Elementary to cafeteria assistant at Dade High.
Board of Education member Jimmy Warren was absent from the meeting as he convalesces from bypass surgery.