PORTLAND, Ore. -- Put a stop to bullying. That's the message from several parents in the David Douglas School District after the On Your Side Investigators revealed a vicious fight between two students that was caught on camera this week.
In the video, a girl punches another girl in the side of the head, prompting the victim to fight back, while surrounded by a crowd of students who appear to be cheering on the fight. The district suspended both girls.
KATU is not naming either student in Monday's incident. The family turned to the On Your Side Investigators because they felt the district was trying to gloss over the attack instead of address their concerns. The victim insisted on speaking up and appearing on camera for our story; KATU News made the decision to record her interview in silhouette for her own protection.
In the interview, the victim's mother insisted this fight was a sign of deeper bullying problems within the district. Within a day, the fight had become a rallying cry for several other concerned parents who said bullies targeted their kids, too.
"It needs to stop. Kids are committing suicide over this, self-esteems are being ruined, it just needs to stop," one mother said, whose son attends David Douglas High School. This parent asked KATU not to reveal her identity for fear that her child would be retaliated against at school.
This mom said she went to great lengths to try and course-correct what she described, at times, as an "epidemic" problem with bullying. She said her son was the target of snide comments and verbal abuse for years. She said her son never fought back.
Several years ago she decided to approach the district herself about the problem but believed the district downplayed her concerns.
"It's heartbreaking. You get called the 'helicopter mom' and (they said) just let (the kids) work it out. It's heartbreaking," the mom said.
Nevertheless, the mom pushed forward. She also said she approached the school board as well as Sen. Jeff Merkley whose attended David Douglas High School. She said she finally gained traction with David Douglas assistant superintendent Natalie Osburn. She said together they worked to build up an anti-bullying contract with the idea that kids would pledge to join together to stop bullying at the school.
However, after weeks of work, the mother said her efforts flatlined when Osburn left the district a couple years ago.
The mom was insistent that David Douglas was otherwise a good school and praised its music and art program. However, she insisted she would keep fighting to change the culture of bullying because that's what she feels parents need to do.
Despite several attempts to get a better understanding of this issue from the district on Wednesday, when the story broke, the district declined to comment at length, claiming student confidentiality. The On Your Side Investigators left several phone messages with the district's spokesman, Dan McCue, as well as emailed the district's superintendent, Don Grotting, and David Douglas High School's principal John Bier. Emails were not returned from Grotting or Bier. The On Your Side Investigators also went to the district office to speak with school leaders. We were told the two men were unavailable.
Undeterred, the On Your Side Investigators asked McCue for general statements about security, adult supervision, discipline and bullying to best inform and educate parents about bullying policies and practices straight from the source. The district provided a Students Rights and Responsibilities handbook but otherwise declined to go into detail and again refused to speak on camera. We also had questions about why no adults were seen in the video despite the fact the fight happened near a school bus loading zone.
Another former teacher reached out to KATU asking the same question: where were the school’s security guards?
On Thursday, McCue responded with an email statement that read in part:
"I'm not going to get into any particular case with you. But I will make an exception to tell you that this fight was broken up by a security guard. The video you are posting is only 25 seconds long. Whoever filmed it stopped when the security guard arrived on the scene. Please keep in mind that the DDHS campus is about 25-square blocks large. The security guard who broke up the fight was approximately 100 feet away and ran to the scene. A bus driver also responded, but was not picked up in the video."
A teacher weighs in: "We probably should try other options”
In addition to parents, a teacher at David Douglas High School contacted KATU this week with concerns about the methods the district uses to handle bullies, in particular, and students with known behavioral issues, in general. He too asked to be anonymous to protect his job.
The On Your Side Investigators confirmed his teaching certificate is in good standing and there's been no disciplinary actions taken against him.
"I think the majority of kids do really well at David Douglas but there is a significant population of troubling behavior at the school," he said.
When it comes to bad behavior, this teacher acknowledges that there are many factors at play, not least of which, is size. David Douglas High is the largest school in Oregon with roughly 3,000 students enrolled. That includes the students at Fir Ridge Campus, the alternative program located about four blocks from the main high school, according to McCue.
"Because of the size, we have a hard time addressing every behavior problem at the school,” he said.
The teacher believes the fight could have been prevented.
“I think bullying and other behavior issues are not dealt with strategically,” the teacher said.
The teacher believes the district is often aware of students with behavioral problems, including bullying, but doesn’t have a strategy to address them “before it gets out of control.”
The teacher also believes the district is reactive. Instead of the district creating plans to address behavioral problems early on, he said the district's three deans react after-the-fact, hammering students with suspension.
"I believe suspension is their main tool," the teacher said. "Usually these are kids that are having trouble in school already and so when we suspend them, it makes it more difficult for them academically.”
On Thursday, McCue responded to KATU’s request about the teacher’s concerns with an email statement, reading in part:
“This is the first year the high school has had deans of students. There are 3 of them. Their role is behavior support, attendance support, student recognition and discipline. They are there to support teachers, so that teachers can teach.
"In any sort of a 'bullying' scenario, or a dispute between students, there are several layers to potential responses. David Douglas is a Restorative Justice school, so we have students who are trained to help mediate. Students in dispute are brought together to talk things through, with student mediators, counselors, deans, parents, or other adult mediators, depending on the circumstances. Often drama between students begins on social media, and it is rarely one-way. Typically both students are engaged in the dispute. Almost all of these disputes are resolved through mediation or other peaceful means.
"Bottom line, high school students are emerging adults, and they are encouraged to work through their differences as adults and with adult help.
"Suspensions are always a last resort. They occur when/if one of the students continues the behavior after going through all other steps, or if a physical encounter occurs. If both students are fighting with each other, both typically will be suspended. Fighting = Suspension.”
However, the On Your Side Investigators found more than 60 percent of the students at David Douglas were written up last year.
KATU also surveyed several other districts such as Portland Public Schools, which have seen discipline incidents drop. We found they use a program called positive behavior intervention, which stresses real time classroom resolution and not sending the student to the office.
- Discipline disparities and how it relates to race (2012)
- The Oregonian: Portland Public Schools disciplines certain minority groups at higher rates than white students
Discipline disparities and how it relates to crime:
Oregon schools issued over 88 thousand suspensions during the 2011-2012 school year. A large number of those were for relatively minor, non-violent, non-drug-related incidents: nearly half of all out-of-school suspensions in Multnomah County, for example. While the transgressions were often minor, the risks for those suspended were not. A study from Texas found that students in trouble who were suspended or expelled were three times more likely to become involved in the juvenile justice system than similar students who did not face suspensions or expulsions. Suspension rates vary widely by race. In Multnomah, for example, African-Americans are 3.3 times more likely to be suspended or expelled from school, and Hispanics are 1.9 times more likely to be suspended or expelled.
--“Classmates not Cellmates: Elective School Discipline Cuts Crime and Improves Student Success in Oregon” – Fight Crime: Invest In Kids 2013 Report