The issue of bullying in Camas schools came to a head recently, after a Camas High teen sentenced to one year probation for making death threats at his school told police he had threatened to shoot classmates in jest after those students bullied him.
In the days following the teen’s sentencing and withdrawal from Camas High, several community members and parents took to social media sites and school board meetings to ask what Camas School District leaders were doing to prevent and treat cases of bullying within Camas schools.
Camas resident and former school board member Dave Lattanzi spoke about bullying at a March 12 Camas School Board meeting, and presented results from the 2016 Washington State Healthy Youth Survey, which showed that 27 percent of Washington sixth-graders, 27 percent of eighth-graders, 21 percent of sophomores and 17 percent of seniors reported being bullied at school within a month of the survey.
Lattanzi told school board members the issue isn’t limited to the Camas School District, and that something needs to change.
District leaders say they take all bullying and harassment reports very seriously. The district has an official Harassment, Intimidation or Bullying (HIB) form that can be turned in by a student, parent or concerned adult regarding anything from name-calling to physical harassment. District policy requires an administrator to notify families of involved students no more than two days after receiving the HIB report, complete a formal investigation within five school days and inform involved families of the investigation results within two days of the investigation’s end. School administrators must implement corrective measures no later than five school days after notifying families of the investigation results.
In more severe cases, the district may send the incident through a threat-assessment process, which provides intervention for students at risk of committing violent acts. Students undergoing threat assessment are suspended from school without appeal until the threat assessment has concluded.
Public records requested by The Post-Record show that the district has received 27 HIB reports since the start of the 2017-18 school year. Of those 27, only one resulted in a threat assessment.
That case involved an October of 2017 playground incident in which a boy allegedly touched a 10-year-old girl between her legs and, according to the report, “grabbed and squeezed (her) vagina.”
The adult who reported the harassment and unwanted physical touch said the boy’s behavior and comments had had a noticeable and negative impact on the girl.
“(She) dreads seeing him and his presence very negatively affects her sense of safety and her ability to enjoy school and being a … kid at school without fear of harassment,” the reporting adult, possibly the girl’s parent or guardian, stated in the report.
Asked on the report if the student suffered a physical injury, the reporting adult stated, “No physical injury, but emotional trauma is a serious consequence of sexual assault.” They added that this was not the first negative interaction between the two students.
“(He) has chased and yelled things to her on the playground many times,” the reporting adult stated in the report. “He has made inappropriate sexual hand gestures and has made (her) feel targeted and embarrassed — something she of course shouldn’t feel responsible for.”
The adult urges school administrators to consider the safety of other potential victims.
“(The boy’s) behavior and actions are completely unacceptable … students should feel safe at school,” the adult stated in the report. “(The boy) is a constant threat to the safety and well-being of (the girl) as well as other students who come in contact (with) him.”
The incident was referred to Jeffrey Niess, the district’s assistant director of special services, for next-step threat assessment on the alleged perpetrator.
While nine of the 27 reports detailed some form of physical violence, including hitting, kicking, shoving, hair-pulling and/or throwing something at another student, the majority of the reports involved teasing, name-calling or making critical remarks. Some also included verbal threats in person, via telephone and online.
According to the school district documents, most of the bullying and harassment reports filed this school year occurred at the middle school level — 14 of the 27 were at a middle school, seven were at the elementary level and four took place at the high school. Two did not include enough information to identify a particular school or age range.
Responses from district leaders included no-contact contracts in eight of the 27 incidents, three out-of-school school suspensions, four in-school suspensions, three counseling or conference sessions with students, one instance in which students changed bus seats and seven cases of restorative justice.
Another case that stood out involved homophobic bullying at a Camas middle school. In this case, reported to the district via HIB report in mid-January, an eighth-grader reported that students had, according to the report, “called (him) a ‘fag,’ told him that being gay is a sin and disgusting and that he should kill himself.”
Corrective action in this case included family involvement, counseling of students and warnings that this behavior would not be tolerated. In a follow-up report filed one week later, school administrators said the reporting student said he “still (has) the idea that people have a problem with him being gay and that he still hears comments like, ‘that’s so gay,’ (referring) to something being stupid … and ‘I don’t agree with being gay,’ but that he is not experiencing these comments being directed at him or said in a way intended to exclude him.”
Niess said educators in Camas middle and high schools want to make corrective measures more “restorative justice” than punitive.
For instance, in a restorative justice situation, instead of suspending a student, district leaders might ask the perpetrator to apologize to their victim and listen to their victim tell them what it felt like when they were being bullied.
The hope is that the corrective measure will help students better understand the impact of their actions instead of simply doling out punishment.
“It’s not mediation,” Niess said of the restorative justice model. “It is an opportunity for the victim to feel heard, to express all the horrific things that go with that. (And, for) the person who was the accused … to understand the impact of their behavior.”
At the elementary school level, re-education is more common, Niess said.
This may include a student working with a counselor or principal to understand how their actions are inappropriate or how they violate school policies and procedures.
“I think the big thing is to make sure the punishments fit the crime and the developmental age of a student,” Niess said.
Niess said the types of issues included in an HIB report are more nuanced than a fight in the hallway, which is easier to identify and witness. Instead, these reports involved the type of name-calling and unseen physical acts that require more investigation. Over the last three years, Niess has told staff to give him all HIB reports, whether they are substantiated or not.
The number of reports is decreasing in the Camas School District: During the 2015-16 school year, Niess received 51 reports. In 2016-17, that number dropped to 48 reports. Three-quarters of the way into the 2017-18 school year, and the number is down to 27.
Whether this decrease is due to less bullying and harassment, or fewer people reporting those incidents is unknown.
Niess said there are a few factors in play when students keep these things undercover.
“I think what keeps some people from bringing up (HIB) issues is that they tend to be very quiet, one-on-one or not a lot of witnesses,” Niess said. “Then, if you make a statement and it was investigated, people are afraid that it’ll just get worse. But, there are strict rules against that.”
Niess encourages students, staff and even neighbors to fill out the HIB form if they suspect someone is being bullied.
“Every year, we get better at investigating them and handling them,” Niess said of the HIB reports.
The HIB report form can be found at www.camas.wednet.edu/schools-resources/resources/health-wellness.