In the wake of the false rumors of a violent threat at L.J. Hauser Junior High School a few weeks ago (see accompanying story), several Hauser parents are expressing concerns about the prevalence of bullying at the school.

Last month, Krister Friday, the father of a Hauser sixth-grader, told the Riverside Elementary School District 96 Board of Education that his daughter had been racially harassed at Hauser and asked the school board to review its policies and practices regarding bullying. Four other parents with concerns about bullying were at the meeting in support of Friday.

In a telephone interview with the Landmark, Friday said that while the situation was ultimately resolved, he had concerns about how the Hauser administration handled it.

“The response seemed slow and perfunctory,” Friday said. “They certainly don’t know how to talk about race. They couldn’t meaningfully articulate their policy.”

The issue also came up at last month’s meeting of Hauser Parent Teacher Organization when Hauser parent Tina Taylor-Ritzler, who works as a psychology professor at Dominican University, raised the issue. 

“I’m here as a concerned parent on behalf on other concerned parents,” Taylor-Ritzler said at the PTO meeting.

During the roughly 30-minute conversation at the meeting Taylor-Ritzler said she thought bullying at Hauser was a problem.

“I know a lot of kids who have been the target of vicious bullying,” Taylor-Ritzler said.

At the meeting, Hauser Principal April Mahy said that sustained bullying wasn’t much of a problem at Hauser.

“I would say we don’t really have bullying; we have mean acts,” Mahy said at the meeting. 

Mahy, who has spent her entire career in education at middle schools, noted that bullying is a problem at every middle school.

“It’s not a Hauser problem, it’s not a Riverside problem, it’s at every middle school you go to,” Mahy said.

In a telephone interview with the Landmark, Mahy said that bullying at Hauser is rare.

“I can’t give you a number, but I can tell you the number of bullying incidents here at Hauser is less than I can count on one hand,” Mahy said.

Mahy said that once Hauser staff is aware that bullying is going on, they react very quickly.

“We don’t tolerate it here,” Mahy said.

But often teachers, staff and even parents aren’t aware that bullying is going on.

“No one wants to tattle,” Mahy said of middle school students. “We can’t fix it if we don’t know there is a problem. … A lot of times, unfortunately, adults aren’t made aware of a situation until it’s been going on for quite some time.”

Because of that, Mahy said school staff work very hard to make sure that reports of bullying are kept confidential.

“When we do get information about a situation, we work very diligently to make sure that the victim in the case is not identified as the person who has given us the information,” Mahy said. “We have to work with the bully, basically, in getting the bully to admit they’re wrong and to do it in a way that didn’t come about as someone else reporting them.”

A student or parent can anonymously report bullying through a link on the district website, but Mahy said that she is not aware of any reports that come to her that way.

Mahy said that parents should monitor their children’s use of social media, which in recent years has been a prime location for bullying.

“If parents could be more vigilant in monitoring their children’s use of social media it would go a long way,” Mahy said.

The emphasis at Hauser is on prevention of bullying by encouraging kind and respectful behavior among students.

“Because we’ve had very few bullying reports and very few bullying incidents that we’ve had to deal with, our focus is on being proactive,” Mahy said. 

That includes the new Positive Behavioral Support System that provides rewards for positive behavior, responsibility, and respectfulness. That type of behavior is called the Hauser Way.

“Kids are encouraged to recognize the positive in one another,” Mahy said.

A new element about positive relationships is likely to be added to the health curriculum, and this spring the district plans to host a parent night featuring the author of a book about bullying.

“We’re looking at improving our social-emotional learning curriculum,” said District 96 Superintendent Martha Ryan-Toye.

Source of false rumor at Hauser 'never determined'

Officials of Riverside Elementary School District 96 say that they are not sure of how the rumors began last month that a Hauser student would bring a gun to school and shoot people. 

 

The rumor was completely unfounded and the boy who was said to be planning on wreaking violence on the school had no such plans. The Riverside Police Department thoroughly investigated, searching the boy's locker, computer and home and called the rumor baseless.

 

Some believe that the boy was targeted with the false rumor as a form of bullying.

 

District 96 Superintendent Martha Ryan-Toye said that she is still not sure how the rumor began.

 

"No one ever heard this child say anything about a threat of violence to the school and nobody ever heard … a particular individual or group of individuals sort of place that rumor upon that child," Ryan-Toye said. 

 

Ryan-Toye said district officials could not determine whether anyone deliberately spread the false rumor to hurt the boy.

 

"It almost sounded like, initially, that a group of kids had conspired to place this rumor upon a child in a mean way, and that's what we never determined," Ryan-Toye said. "Based on our investigation, I don't think it was that overt or direct."

 

Hauser Principal April Mahy didn't want to talk much about the incident, but said that she could see how some could consider it a form of bullying.

 

"I guess if you look at it in the true sense of the definition of bullying, it could fall under that," Mahy said. "I don't want to talk too specifically about it, because I want to make sure that I'm protecting the privacy of the people that were involved."

 

The rumor first came to attention of school officials when a group of girls reported it to a school social worker on the afternoon of Feb. 1. Ryan-Toye said that the girls did the right thing, because they didn't know the rumor was false.

 

"That's what we ask people to do," Ryan-Toye said. "If you hear something that doesn't sound right come forward."

 

Not long after the girls reported the rumor late in the afternoon, the Riverside Police Department received an anonymous tip via the village's website that a violent incident could take place at Hauser.

 

Riverside Police Chief Tom Weitzel said police have made no attempt to discover who sent in the tip, because he doesn't want to discourage people from using the tip link.

 

Mahy wouldn't say if any student or students had been punished for spreading the false rumor.

 

"I know it's very frustrating for parents to not be able to know these things, but we have to protect all students and their privacy and their confidentiality," Mahy said. So, students who receive consequences, students who are bullied, I have to protect both of them."

— Bob Skolnik

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