Mother speaks out against bullying at South Tahoe Middle School
A South Lake Tahoe mother says her child has endured three years of bullying at South Tahoe Middle School — and she won’t stop speaking up about it publicly until something changes.
Last week, a student threw rocks at Liz Ferguson’s 14-year-old daughter Annie. Though a meeting with the school eventually revealed it was an “isolated incident” from the offending student, it was “the straw that broke the camel’s back,” according to Ferguson.
“My issue is the three years of bullying that we’ve mostly kept quiet about, but have spoken out about on certain serious issues,” said Ferguson. “It continues not just for my daughter, but for multiple kids.”
On Wednesday Ferguson decided to go public about her daughter’s struggles in school through a series of Facebook posts. Almost immediately she received an outpouring of support and stories from past and present parents in the Lake Tahoe Unified School District about their own children’s issues with bullying.
“I have 87 examples between Facebook, Instagram, private messages and texts that were sent to me by different parents of issues that they’ve had in school,” said Ferguson. “They’ve pulled their kids, they’ve homeschooled, they’ve moved, or they’ve graduated.”
Ferguson said Annie has been emailed and texted “cruel and unkind” messages and endured other behavior from peers that she would rather not publicize. She said her daughter hasn’t felt comfortable going to a faculty member for fear of being labeled a tattletale. The emotional toll has impacted her self-esteem and forced her to pull out of certain activities and social situations.
“Nobody wants to admit that their kid is mean just like I don’t want to admit that my kid is a victim. I want my kid to learn to stand up for herself and be able to navigate life and school without being portrayed as a victim,” said Ferguson. “Our system has let our kids down because the bullies get to stay in school. The victims are the ones that withdraw and pull out.”
Ferguson said she is not blameless in this situation, but she doesn’t believe teachers and parents are doing enough to identify the behavior and educate kids on empathy, kindness and standing up against bullying for themselves and others.
“Bottom line is it’s what they learn at home. The school district cannot control what is learned at home. However, when it happens on their premises and under their noses, they should be aware of it and not allow it to continue,” she added.
Ferguson has offered to begin fundraising for a comprehensive program to better equip the district with tools to identify and address issues of bullying.
“We really want to be part of finding a solution.”
STMS Principal John Simons admits that middle school is a tough time when it comes to bullying.
“You have kids that come to the middle school and have been with the same kids all of their education through the primary grades, and now they are getting mixed with kids from different schools and they start making different decisions because they have a little bit more independence,” said Simons.
“Dealing with conflict and coping is part of the middle school experience, and along with that comes the bullying issue. It will be something we will always have to stay on top of and address.”
Simons said the school staff has regular training on bullying and cyberbullying. They have partnerships with local organizations like Tahoe Youth and Family Services and Live Violence Free to provide counseling and empowerment assemblies, as well as an online portal on the district’s website to anonymously report bullying.
“We’ve focused on bringing in personnel to be experts and help us with this. For example, my site has a psychologist, two counselors, a vice principal and an open position for a student advocate,” said Simons.
Simons also pointed to a number of school clubs that seek to connect students with mentors or peers with similar interests.
“I want our community to know that our mission is to have every student have a positive experience here, and making them feel safe is really important,” said Simons.
“Ever since the Florida shooting especially I’ve been very proud of our staff and our students because we’ve been … asking students, ‘if you see something, say something.’ I think that has really resonated with our students. If they have a hard time coming to us, parents are advocates and we don’t ignore them. If we hear about it we will do everything we can to put a stop to it.”
Dr. Michele Borba, an educational psychologist and parenting and bullying expert, said the key to addressing bullying in schools is creating a comprehensive program involving teachers, students and parents.
“The big mistake is thinking that a one-time assembly or one-time training is going to do it,” said Borba.
One of the key elements is mobilizing the kids to speak up when bullying is happening to them or their peers.
“Eighty-five percent of bullying happens when adults aren’t present — and this is true all over the world,” said Borba. “We need to teach kids who are bystanders how to mobilize and victims healthier ways to assert themselves and learn that they are not at fault. It’s a long-term systemic process. It’s all about creating a safe and inclusive school, which is what every kid deserves.”
For Ferguson, opening up in such a public way about Annie’s issues with bullying has made a big difference for her daughter. A number of students have reached out to Annie to offer their support.
“After all this, having kids realize that she is really, really hurt and reaching out and trying to fix that has been huge. That’s a big part of healing,” said Ferguson. “I don’t want this to get better for just my daughter — I want it to be better for all of the kids in school.”