Coeur d’Alene school leaders are getting a glimpse of how cruelly some students treat each other, including sexual harassment, racial bias, religious intolerance, gay-bashing and badgering kids who are overweight, poor or disabled.
In a new report prefaced with a warning of offensive language, bullying expert Steve Wessler shares details of candid meetings he held with almost 300 middle school and high school students last fall.
The 14-page report released Friday presents raw anecdotes of bad behavior, from vicious name-calling to physical attacks. “A number of these incidents appear to involve criminal sexual assault or physical assault,” Wessler noted.
The consultant from Maine has done similar work in schools around the world and cautioned local officials about the gravity of what might surface in his investigation, Superintendent Matt Handelman said Saturday.
“There were certainly things that were eye-opening, but I can’t say I was surprised by it,” Handelman said.
Some of the most troubling details, he said, involve boys groping girls and other demeaning conduct.
“I would see guys grab girls’ butts, boobs and everything,” one high school student told Wessler. “It makes you feel degraded, put down and like you are just a piece of meat.”
A middle school student said, “A boy hugged me from behind. He slid his hands towards my crotch. I tried to wiggle out of his arms but he was holding me so hard I couldn’t get him off.”
Handelman said he already has spoken with Coeur d’Alene police about coordinating a more vigorous effort to address sexual harassment in the schools.
“First we need to know about it, and then we need to respond accordingly,” he said.
Wessler met last October with students in focus groups at the district’s three middle schools and two high schools. He also met with parents, teachers, principals and school-based police officers.
Students described a wide variety of degrading language, harassment and bullying they have experienced or witnessed.
“The boys say you are such a slut and bitch, go kill yourself, skank …” one gave as an example.
Use of racial slurs, stereotypes and jokes is high in both middle and high schools, Wessler found. Students said they frequently hear slurs about black people, Asians and Hispanics. Out of 96 middle school students in the focus groups, 81 said they had heard white students using a racial slur referring to African-Americans.
One student of color wrote, “I fake being sick sometimes just so I don’t have to hear those words.”
Some said they also hear jokes and stereotypes about religion, especially Judaism. “Students give the Nazi salute,” one said.
Students with disabilities also are subjected to humiliation. “Mentally disabled kids are urged by some of the football players and popular kids to do funny things like dance or tell stories that exploit their disability,” one high school student said.
Degrading messages using social media are a particularly serious problem among girls, they told Wessler. Students have seen messages such as “go kill yourself” and “go to hell” along with demeaning names, his report said.
Some said they knew of kids who had cut their wrists after being subjected to bullying.
As grim as the report is, there is reason to be optimistic, Wessler said. Students are speaking up for respect and civility and intervening on behalf of classmates, he found. And they told him about teachers who address bias, harassment and bullying.
Wessler will present his findings to the school board Monday night and this week will begin helping the Coeur d’Alene School District take steps to address problems raised in his report. Handelman said he hopes the district can decide by the end of this school year what direction anti-bullying efforts will take starting next fall.
The district has made other changes in the past year to tackle the issues, including adopting clearer, stronger policies prohibiting bullying and harassment. The district also streamlined bullying education in the elementary schools and began a pilot project for the Olweus Bullying Prevention Program at Woodland Middle School this year.
The district won’t be able to stamp out bullying, but it can change the culture in schools, Handelman said.
“We want to keep improving. That’s the bottom line,” he said.