Kids Both Cool, Cruel At School Middle School Survey Opens E Around Spokane
Chelsea Muto counted the days until middle school, expecting an instantly cool life with eager new friends.
The first day, she couldn’t open her locker and was six minutes late for art class.
The second day she skipped lunch, too self-conscious to cross the cafeteria and get in line.
Week Two: She fainted in chorus and woke up as a concerned teacher, trying to elevate her legs, also nearly elevated her skirt. She was so embarrassed.
Eighth-graders at Salk Middle School dubbed her a “sevvie,” as in lowly seventh-grader.
And most of her six teachers pronounced her name wrong, calling her “Chel-see-ya Mutt-o” instead of “Chel-see Mute-o.”
“I was wandering the halls. I was scared to death I wouldn’t find my classes,” recalled Chelsea, now an eighth-grader who celebrated her 14th birthday just last Thursday. “I was scared to go into the bathroom. I just held it all day.”
The move from elementary to middle school marks one of life’s toughest transitions. Adolescents’ bodies grow rapidly. So does their self-consciousness and desire to fit in.
Asked how they’re doing by parents or teachers, middle-schoolers may say nothing more than “fine.” But now Spokane School District 81 has a new way of gauging students’ attitudes toward middle school - a 48-question survey answered by 75 percent of the district’s 4,905 middle school students.
Most indicated their classmates don’t respect or care about each other. They also noted excessive putdowns and kids picking on one another.
School administrators winced at those results, but liked some others. Most students, for instance, said teachers treat them with kindness and respect, and the vast majority reported feeling safe at school.
Some results were surprising, such as kids considering drugs a bigger problem than alcohol among their peers.
Administrators call the statistics an important “window into the soul” of students and a first step toward making the transition to high school a happier, more productive experience.
“The experiences people have in middle school are ones they carry with them through life,” said Associate Superintendent Cynthia Lambarth.
R-E-S-P-E-C-T means that you don’t pick on me
After a classmate punched a staple into Carl’s neck, the 14-year-old Glover student landed firmly among the 61 percent of students who said kids picking on each other is a problem at school.
For Kendall, 13, who attends Shaw Middle School, it was getting shoved repeatedly in the hallways by bigger boys.
For others, it’s name-calling. “Four Eyes.” “Dork.” “Nerd.” “Fat Girl.” “Stupid Wannabe.”
The survey made it clear: Middle-schoolers can make life hard on each other. Sixty-four percent indicated students don’t treat each other with respect.
Just 24 percent said most students care about each other. And 69 percent said there are a lot of put-downs in their schools.
Middle schools are ideal breeding grounds for such feelings, said Michael J. McBride, a psychology professor at Gonzaga University.
Students leave elementary schools where they’re surrounded by familiar faces for middle school hallways crowded with hundreds of strangers.
They juggle six classrooms instead of one, in buildings much larger than their neighborhood elementary schools. Many encounter gym lockers and school bus rides for the first time.
“Anonymity is a large amount of what they’re relating to,” McBride said. “Especially at this age, there’s a crude cruelty among kids.”
“The popular kids pick on other people,” said Kim, 13, another Glover student. “That’s how they get respect.”
Kids get picked on for what they wear and for making good grades, said Jordan, a 13-year-old Sacajawea Middle School student.
“People just don’t know how to get along,” said Carl. “I come to school and worry about what they’re going to pick on me about.”
Thirty-eight percent said students are picked on because of their race or culture. More minority kids said that’s a problem, including half of the Native American students who filled out the survey.
Seventy-eight percent said students are picked on because of the way they look.
Marcia Loft, whose daughter, Libby, attends Sacajawea, found those statistics disheartening.
“I feel respect is a basis for a community. That’s how we tolerate diversity. I’d like to get more feedback from the kids.”
Lambarth hopes the survey will encourage principals to arrange student meetings to discuss respect and how harassment can hinder learning.
“Respect must be a cornerstone of classroom discussions,” she said. “I don’t think hurting other people is ever acceptable.”
Secrets and knives
Despite the jabs, more than half the students enjoy being at school, and even more said they feel safe.
Seventy-eight percent said they feel safe in cafeterias; 69 percent feel safe in hallways and bathrooms; 68 percent feel safe on school grounds.
More than a quarter said they’d seen a weapon on campus this school year, however.
And an alarming number of those kids - 85 percent - said they didn’t report the weapon to authorities.
“Kids not telling us there’s weapons - that’s dangerous,” said Margo Dreis, a teacher at Salk. “These things concern us.”
Lou Sowers, a child psychologist at Greentree Behavioral Health, isn’t surprised so many kids keep it to themselves.
“The last thing you want to do is be labeled a narc, especially with a lot of this gang wannabe stuff in Spokane.”
Lisa, a 14-year-old Sacajawea student, has never seen a weapon on campus, but she doubts she’d speak up. “I think I would tell a friend who I thought would tell.”
“People might not want to tell me stuff if I told on them,” added Anna, also 14.
Of those students who saw a weapon, 55 percent saw a knife and 17 percent saw a gun, the survey shows.
Administrators believe they’re confiscating most weapons brought to school - 18 so far this school year, said Mary Brown, district student services supervisor.
Teachers encourage kids who fear being labeled a snitch to use a police hotline so they can make anonymous reports.
“After all we’ve told them, it bothers me they wouldn’t follow up,” said Brown. “Why wouldn’t they? I don’t know.”
Invitation to a new reality
Chelsea’s transition to middle school wasn’t just difficult for her.
It was tough for her parents, too - especially the day they found a handwritten note from one of Chelsea’s new friends, inviting her to a pot party.
“We were just really flabbergasted,” said Stefanie Muto, Chelsea’s mother. “My baby! I thought we were immune from that.”
Forty-three percent of students who filled out the survey called drug use a problem among students, while 31 percent said alcohol use is a problem.
Brown said teachers may be less aware of drug use because it’s easier to identify kids who’ve been drinking.
“It’s detectable, and marijuana isn’t so much,” she said. “That’s what they’re going to use.”
Students said they’d seen classmates stash tequila in a backpack and marijuana in a compact disc case. Most, like Chelsea, said they don’t drink or use drugs themselves.
“People aren’t dealing drugs in the hallway or anything,” said Libby.
Half said they’d leave if friends were drinking or taking drugs. A third said they’d stay and not use, while 15 percent said they’d join in.
“It’s what I’d expect to see,” said Sowers, “which means it’s a big problem.”
Answers prompt more questions
So far, only middle school students have taken the survey, but principals plan to poll high school and elementary students this spring.
The surveys could become an annual yardstick to see how student attitudes and school atmospheres change as they grow up, administrators said.
Some questions will also be worded differently. Educators aren’t sure what to make of the 22 percent who said students at their school talk about suicide. Does that include classrooom discussions or conversations among peers?
Educators were elated to hear that 79 percent said they can say “no” if their friends do something they disagree with. Will that change in high school?
Forty percent of students say school helps them feel good about who they are. But, administrators ask, what does that really tell them?
Chelsea may have answered the survey differently if it had been given last year. Her attitude toward school has changed drastically since seventh grade. She’s recovered from a grade slump and has lots of new friends and more self-confidence.
Loft said the community can learn a lot from students’ responses.
“I think we do need to be listening to our kids now more than ever. We cannot respond to their needs if we cannot hear their …”
“Voices,” finished Libby.
, DataTimes ILLUSTRATION: 4 Photos (1 Color); 2 Graphics, both titled: How are students treated?