Makayla Mike used to love to go to school—until she was nine years old, when a boy in her class began calling her fat and ugly, the kinds of taunts that haunt even the most well adjusted women long after childhood.
What started out as verbal teasing eventually turned into multiple trips to urgent care, most recently in September for a broken ankle after Makayla was jostled off the “spider climb,” a large, red string climbing structure on the playground at Laura MacArthur Elementary, where Makayla is now a fifth-grader. [This has been altered from the original, which misidentified Makayla as a fourth-grader.]
Later this year, Makayla was removed from the school crossing guard after the same boy smacked her on the back with a crossing guard pole, knocking the wind out of her. When the family reported the incident to the school, Makayla was removed from the crossing guard, but the boy who struck her was not, according to Makayla’s mother, Heather Smith. “She cried for three days straight. I tried to tell her it’s ok. Now you don’t have to be out in the rain and snow, but she didn’t care about that. She just wanted to do crossing guard.”
Her teacher tried to find another activity for her, so she now helps monitor lunch and recess, but it was a small consolation prize for the injustice of losing an activity that she loved. “She’s being punished for something that isn’t her fault.”
But separating the students is one of the first actions a school will take to address bullying, defined by Minnesota Statute 121A.031 as:
Intimidating, threatening, abusive, or harming conduct that is objectively offensive and: (1) There is an actual or perceived imbalance of power between the student engaging in prohibited conduct and the target of the behavior and the conduct is repeated or forms a pattern; or (2) materially and substantially interferes with a student's educational opportunities or performance or ability to participate in school functions or activities or receive school benefits, services, or privileges.
In recent years, the Duluth Schools have been under scrutiny over allegations of bullying after 13-year-old Tristan Seehus committed suicide in 2015.
Tristan’s father, Todd Seehus, filed a lawsuit against ISD 709, alleging that the staff at Lincoln Park Middle School was aware that Tristan was being victimized, but failed to respond when other students called him “fag” and “homo,” knocked his books out of his hands or beat him up. According to Seehus’ attorney, upon hearing about his suicide, Tristan’s bullies merely laughed.
Last June, the School District settled the Seehus case under confidential terms, although the court record indicates that an appeal has been filed.
“Depending on the situation, if it was deemed it was bullying, you would do everything to separate the students,” says Laura MacArthur Principal Clayton Norman, who cannot address specific allegations due to student privacy, but can speak about bullying in general.
“It can be tricky to get all of the information about an alleged bullying issue. If it happens at school during the day, we can respond right away, while the students are still there. But if it’s reported later, and we have a weekend where we won’t see them, the process can last a few days or longer.”
Norman says it can be difficult to determine if an incident was bullying per definition, or whether it was an isolated conflict, which is more common. Regardless, he says the school would certainly intervene in either case.
Smith begs to differ, saying that intervention is handed back to the parents, who aren’t given enough information to do anything. “I’ve had meetings with the principal, and asked if he could arrange for me to have a meeting with him and the parents of the boy present. But he said he can’t do that, that I’d have to arrange it on my own. But I don’t know who his parents are, and the school can’t give me the information because it’s confidential.”
In 2014, the School District adopted an anti-bullying policy, which Smith says she was unaware of. “All I’ve seen is a handmade sign in the main office [at Laura MacArthur], made by students, that says something about anti-bullying, but that’s obviously a load of crap because it continues to happen.”
Taking its language in part from Minnesota’s anti-bullying statute, the policy states in part:
Many student conflicts can be resolved immediately and do not require reporting or creation of an incident report or office discipline referral. Schools must respond to bullying in a manner tailored to the individual incident, considering the nature of the behavior, the developmental age of the student, and the student’s history of problem behaviors and performance. It is the Duluth School District’s responsibility to prevent bullying and to take action to investigate, respond, remediate, and discipline those involved in acts of bullying which have not been successfully prevented—to the extent possible given that such conduct affects the educational environment of Duluth Schools and the rights and welfare of its students, and is within the control of Duluth School District in its normal operations.
The policy requires each school facility to have a “Building Report Taker,” usually the principal. Each building has its own reporting forms on the District’s website. After receiving a report, the policy requires the school to investigate within three school days. The policy refers to “Prohibited Conduct” and “Remedial Responses,” but doesn’t name anything specific, since every bullying situation is unique.
Norman says typical responses range from monitoring the students more closely to having them work with the school’s mental health specialist.
But Smith says that in their case, extra monitoring backfired. Knowing that he’s been put on notice, Makayla’s tormentor has employed his friends, persuading a different boy to push her off the spider climb.
“Because he’s being watched more closely now, he’s gotten his friend to do a lot of the dirty work. That’s been going on for about half a year now. [The other boy] wasn’t originally involved, but now they both do it.”
The taunts of “fat” and “ugly” and pointing out her tummy have continued, and Smith is concerned about her daughter’s body image. “She tries to skip eating breakfast and dinner. She’s starting to believe what they tell her. I do my best to tell her she’s beautiful every day, but it only helps so much.”
It’s gotten to the point where Makayla, who once thrived at school, no longer wants to go. “She used to cry when she couldn’t go to school. She loves school. But now she tells me she doesn’t want to go, and it’s always after a day with a bad incident.”