A trio of parents delivered impassioned speeches to the Winona Area Public School (WAPS) Board last week, accusing the district of mishandling school assaults, bullying, and racial and other discrimination.
“Will it take a school shooting for us to address this issue?” asked the mother of a Winona Senior High School (WSHS) student. “I really hope not.”
In her statement to the board, the mother of the WSHS student recounted a recent incident in which she alleged her child was physically assaulted during the school day, which she said resulted in “two days of Leadership In School Suspension” for the alleged assailant, who returned to “normal classes and hallways on day three.”
Both parents of the WSHS student told the board that their child was not involved in a “fight,” but rather, an unprovoked incident of violence. “I can no longer sit idly by with regret [because I have been] saying nothing and doing nothing. I am here to say that you have a problem of bullying in your school and the worst part is that you accept it,” stated the father of the WSHS student. “I do not see how anyone can see this as a possible punishment for an unprovoked assault.”
The board then listened as the mother of a Washington-Kosciusko (W-K) student shared her family’s story of bullying within the district, which by her account included incidents of verbal harassment, assault, teasing related to learning ability, and the use of racial slurs by classmates. The W-K mother told the board she had met with WAPS administrators who listened to her, but she felt that they were trying to “shut [her] out.” She also acknowledged that bullying is not just a problem within WAPS, but that it is “a problem worldwide, community-wide, statewide.”
The last public comment came from an elementary student whose mother said he had been assaulted and bullied at school. The young student stood before the board, at first appearing shy, telling them, “I’ve always wanted to talk in a microphone.” But the severity of the issue was apparent as the student spoke of personal experiences in the past school year, and expressed a yearning for acceptance by peers and staff. “I always wanted to learn and be cool and be smart,” the student said, adding that W-K “is not my favorite school in the world.”
"Kids are hurting. They are even dying," said the W-K mother in a prepared statement about her experiences at WAPS and in the Twin Cities. "LGBTQ kids or kids of LGBTQ parents are facing issues of harassment. Minorities are more likely to be in trouble, fall behind, [be] arrested, drop out [or get] pushed out, [be] verbally and physically attacked, bullied and/or assaulted…. Enough of the talking already. Start doing better."
The mother of the senior high school student who was allegedly assaulted told the board that she emailed WSHS principal Kelly Halvorsen, WSHS assistant principal Dave Anderson and WAPS superintendent Scott Hannon regarding the “lenient punishment and [her] concern” about the incident.
In documents obtained by the Winona Post, Halvorsen responded by email, telling the family, “I am confident in Mr. Anderson’s handling of the fight last week. There are many circumstances we consider when imposing discipline on students, most of which are protected data privacy and can not be shared with the victim and/or victim’s family.”
Later in the email Halvorsen stressed the importance of reporting anything related to bullying in the future, as well as expressing her regret of the situation. “If [name redacted] ever feels threatened or there are rumors regarding any retaliation it is extremely important the office is made aware of the situation. I am sorry your family has had this experience at Winona Senior High. It is extremely unfortunate, and as you said, illegal. We work hard to ensure a safe environment for students, unfortunately, we are not able to prevent everything from happening. I can assure you, we will keep an extra close eye on [name redacted].”
WAPS Board chair Mohamed Elhindi pledged during the meeting to investigate the incidents and promised that the board would take the reports seriously. “I’d like to thank you for coming,” Elhindi said. “No board member in this room has tolerance of this issue, and I assure you one thing, this board will act. I hope you will work with us to deal with this issue.”
At the close of the meeting, the board discussed bullying policy changes suggested by the Minnesota School Board Association (MSBA), the bulk of which were mandated by the state’s new bullying law. In an interview last Tuesday before the board meeting, Hannon explained that the changes are essentially an updated bullying policy from the MSBA to help districts adhere to the new state statutes. “[They have] a little better definition of bullying and cyberbullying, just so everyone is on the same page,” he said. “It’s good because one person might think [cyberbullying] means one thing while another person thinks it means another.”
The updates to the policy include stronger definitions of bullying and cyberbullying, as well as clearer standards for how soon an incident of bullying should be reported and responded to, how a school district should handle incidents of bullying, and additional information on training and education within the district.
Before discussing specific parts of the new bullying update, board member Brian Zeller addressed the earlier public comments regarding bullying and said, “We don’t want another group to come in like we [saw] today.”
Elhindi agreed, adding, “It’s heartbreaking.”
While no present WAPS administrators made a comment on the alleged incidents of bullying after the public comments, Hannon did address the issue after Zeller and Elhindi spoke, saying, “I just want to make one comment — there are always two sides to every story.”