Two issues - bullying and books - packed the district office conference room Monday night for the Alexandria School Board's regular monthly meeting.
Eighty people showed up, a majority to support a 14-year-old boy who said he was driven from Discovery Middle School one month ago by bullying, and to back a parents' group objecting to a half-dozen books that were among those available to eighth-grade English students (for a story on the latter subject, see Friday's Echo Press.)
Zach Hay opened the public portion of the meeting by reading a statement. He said he had a 4.0 GPA and was involved in several extra-curricular activities, but what transpired this past school year forced him to switch to New Testament Christian School.
"Eighth grade was hell," he said, citing harassment, sexual harassment, bullying and cyber bullying as the reasons. He said he was called homosexual terms by students and a teacher, and it got to the point where on April 9 he wanted to die.
"Thankfully I had parents who care about me," Hay said. "I was bullied too long," adding that he was let down by the school's administration and received "no real response."
Hay read from the school's policy on bullying, and recommended ways to make it tougher, some of which he noted already are part of the policy. He suggested that if the district made an example of someone who was bullying, the next bully might think twice.
Hay's mother, Bobbi, said her son wasn't the only one affected by this issue.
"It goes way beyond anything I would have ever thought," she said.
Parents tell their kids to speak up in the face of bullying, but she said when they do it is met by disbelief and denial.
"Adults cannot continue to fail children in this way, and you need to do something about it before it's too late," Bobbi Hay said.
Radio announcer Tommy Lee, who stood with Hay and his parents, followed by saying he was speaking for himself and not his employers. Bullying is a topic that hit home, saying he was bullied since attending elementary school in another district and received death threats. Over the past 14 years he has talked to more than 150 students about bullying.
"We need to stand up for these kids," Lee said. "The community got together and helped (Zach). If not, we wouldn't be here today. We would be at a funeral."
The discussion went on for more than half an hour, with a few more people introducing themselves at the podium, and others just speaking out from the audience.
Jamie Beach said she was also bullied, and when it happened to her 12-year-old son, he reached the breaking point and beat someone up. She decided to pull him out of school and move him out of the area. She called for stricter policies.
"Our children have a right to go to school and feel safe," Beach said. "They need to be heard. Right now they're not being heard."
Hay's grandmother stood up and said she was a proud graduate of School District 206, but she said the school's policies have to be enforced.
Charlene Berglin said her son has graduated, but he was bullied in school and it is still affecting him. She alleged he got no support from an administrator or a coach.
"What you need to do is not just go over the policy every year. You need training for the teachers. You need to be out in the hallways," she said. "And when these kids have a problem, you need to be there for the kids."
Superintendent Julie Critz said training on the subject was done with all staff members at the start of the school year.
Board Chairman Dean Anderson said the district has to defend the rights of every student, and that it has a dedicated team of teachers. Lee did not dispute that last point.
"Not for one minute do I believe that one of you doesn't care about the kids in our school. We are human, we are fallible, we make mistakes. Let's learn from them," Lee said. "We're all on the same team. If we don't work together, we don't fix it, and we need to fix it."
He suggested a public committee to work on the issue. Anderson said parents have been invited to sit on bullying committees in the past, and that perhaps it was time to revisit that idea.
Critz and board member Alan Zeithamer revisited the subject at the end of the 2 ½-hour meeting.
Zeithamer felt the district spends considerable time investigating bullying charges, and he called for finding out if a group of 14 comparable school districts handle the topic any differently.
"It was very unsettling tonight, and rightfully so. What goes on in our schools is very much a reflection of our communities," he said. While admitting he needed to learn more about a restorative justice model that is used elsewhere, he wondered if that may hold some answers.
"This is something we all worry about. Can we get better? Yes," Critz said. How to accomplish that is the key. She finished a thought that was interrupted earlier in the meeting, involving a suggestion from an eighth grader that she wants to pursue. That student acknowledged that adults can't be everywhere, and that students can be part of the solution.
"We've started the conversation around what does that look like and what's the process," Critz said.
Following the meeting, she added: "We have to involve the community and the students and the staff. We all work on this together. That's going to be our next step, to reach out and pull people together."