‘I felt isolated’
More than 180 bullying incidents reported last school year
ALPENA — Fifth-grader Frank Beeler said he would go into the attic of his house sometimes and cry himself to sleep because of what bullies said to him.
After being bullied, “I got confused and I didn’t really do my work well, so that’s why I got bad grades sometimes,” added sixth-grader Rowan Belleville. “I felt isolated from my friends, like I just wanted to be alone sometimes.”
Those kids are not alone. Statistics provided by Northeast Michigan school districts show dozens of area students are bullied every school year.
Alpena Public Schools — Northeast Michigan’s largest district, with 3,753 students last year — reported 150 bullying incidents, while the other six districts in Northeast Michigan ranged from 14 to zero reported bullying incidents, according to numbers provided by school administrators through a Michigan Freedom of Information Act request.
The districts’ numbers likely under-report the problem. State surveys of students show about half of the area’s middle schoolers and about a third of its high schoolers said they were bullied on school property in the 2017-18 school year.
“There’s no normal for how many incidents, but we strive to have zero,” Alpena Superintendent John VanWagoner said. “Any number is unacceptable, in my opinion.”
Beeler said bullying helped him grow closer to his family because he has had their support when he’s been bullied. He said having that support has helped him through those tough situations.
Belleville said being bullied so many times makes her feel like she can help people and make them feel like they’re important, though being bullied might make them feel unimportant.
“Just walk away from them and you’ll feel much better, unless they keep bothering you, then you’ll have to tell a teacher,” Belleville said. “Just be happy about yourself and don’t think about any negative feelings, don’t think about suicidal thoughts, just think about you being you and you being you amazingly.”
Combined, the seven districts in Northeast Michigan reported 184 bullying incidents last school year.
Alcona Community Schools reported 21 incidents the 2017-18 school year and 14 last school year. Superintendent Dan O’Connor said that, though those numbers are high for a district with almost 700 students, he is encouraged the number decreased.
“We have worked hard to improve behavioral and emotional supports in both buildings to increase attention, support, and response time to each situation,” O’Connor said.
Carl Seiter, superintendent of both Hillman Community Schools and Atlanta Community Schools, said seeing low numbers is good in any school system. Hillman had a total of 14 incidents the past two years, while Atlanta had one last school year.
Posen Consolidated Schools — Northeast Michigan’s smallest school district, with 213 students last year — reported zero bullying incidents the last two school years. Superintendent Michelle Wesner attributes that to the district’s school success worker, who personalizes topics for students instead of implementing repercussions for their behavior.
Across all of Presque Isle County, which includes Posen, 46.3% of middle schoolers and 29.8% high schoolers said they were bullied on school property during the 2017-18 school year, according to the Michigan Profile for Healthy Youth, an online student health survey completed by the Michigan departments of Education and Health and Human Services.
In Alcona, Alpena, and Montmorency counties, 60% of middle schoolers and 25.3% of high schoolers said they were bullied on school property in the 2017-18 school year.
Not every Northeast Michigan school district is following a state law that requires them to report bullying incidents to their boards of education and the Michigan Department of Education.
The Matt Epling Safe School Law, which was enacted in 2011 and required districts to adopt bullying policies, was revised in 2015 to require school districts to send yearly bullying numbers to the state.
It appears most Northeast Michigan school districts have been following those policies, according to a review by The News.
The reports contain information about bullying situations and how those situations were resolved. Reports also explain steps individual districts are taking to prevent bullying in the future.
Onaway Area Community Schools Superintendent Rod Fullerton said he will provide a report to the Onaway Board of Education at its meeting this month about the 2018-19 school year, but he did not complete reports in prior school years.
Fullerton did not respond to follow-up messages seeking comment on why past years’ reports weren’t provided to his board.
Fullerton provided the 2018-19 report to The News, which showed students were disciplined for fighting, aggression, language, and other issues. However, the report does not state how many bullying incidents occurred during the school year.
Alcona Community Schools Superintendent Dan O’Connor said he has provided reports to his board annually since he became superintendent in spring 2017.
Nick Hein, superintendent of Rogers City Area Schools, provided a report to the board after the 2018-19 school year that explained incidents that occurred during the school year.
Details about specific incidents were blacked out in Rogers City’s response to The News’ FOIA request, so specific information about the number of bullying incidents was not provided. Hein said in a phone interview there were eight bullying incidents last school year.
After Natalie Grulke, a Rogers City High School student, killed herself on May 2, several parents pressed that district’s Board of Education to do a better job responding to bullying.
‘IT CAN HAVE LASTING EFFECTS’
Bullying can have a lasting effect on students long-term, superintendents say.
Wesner, of Posen, said students have to feel safe. If they’re being bullied, they won’t absorb knowledge like they should.
“Students’ mental health is important in order to allow them to be free to learn,” Wesner said. “If that was compromised, it would make it difficult for students to achieve academically like they should.”
“The long-term effects of a situation that involves bullying differ for each student, but surely has an impact on their emotional and behavioral well-being,” O’Connor, the Alcona superintendent, said.
Meanwhile, Seiter, of Hillman and Atlanta, said bullying robs students of their self-esteem.
“I want confident, care-free, happy students,” Seiter said. “Bullying impacts kids differently, but, over time, it can have lasting effects.”
OTHER AVENUES TO REPORT
There are different avenues for students to report bullying incidents if they don’t want to tell an adult at school.
One program is OK2SAY, a student safety program that allows students to confidentially report tips on potential harm. The harm can either be directed at fellow students, school employees, or schools in general.
Through July 31, there have been 4,084 bullying tips reported statewide out of the total 20,099 tips, according to the OK2SAY website.
Superintendents say students can talk to school success workers or guidance counselors. Alpena’s VanWagoner said students can talk to teachers or building administrators. He said he has talked to Alpena administrators about talking to students and making sure that they feel safe.
“Students should let an adult know, and they can even call me, if they want to,” VanWagoner said. “We take accusations seriously, and we want to make sure every student feels safe.”
Seiter said Hillman has a bullying committee that works to find ways to educate students and eliminate bullying for all.
Hein said Rogers City has a peer group that students can use, a guidance counselor, and a school success worker.
Wesner, the Posen superintendent, said her district has some staff members who work with students to build healthy relationships. She said the district’s school success worker, liaison officer from the Presque Isle County Sheriff’s Office, and herself all help students.
“We also have someone from Catholic Human Services who comes in and they work with the younger students,” Wesner said.
Julie Goldberg can be reached at 989-358-5688 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter @jkgoldberg12.
Bullying, by the numbers
A look at bullying incidents for Northeast Michigan school districts from the 2017-18 and 2018-19 school years.
Alcona 21 14
Alpena N/A 150
Atlanta N/A 1
Hillman 6 8
Onaway N/A 3
Posen 0 0
Rogers City N/A 8
Source: Local school districts