PARK RAPIDS, Minn. — Jason and Hanna Markert, of Park Rapids, started to homeschool all three of their daughters this year after seeing a dangerous decline in their grades, behavior and health.
According to Kinsey, 17; Kamryn, 14; and Kendyl, 10, school bullying played a role — including cyber threats, verbal abuse and physical and sexual assault by other students — while interventions by school staff were less than helpful.
"A faculty member assaulted one of my children, leaving marks on her," Hanna Markert said. "A faculty member called my child a liar and a hazard to other children. A faculty member offered to find her another school so (he or she) does not have to deal with myself, my husband or my child anymore."
Tony Kinkel, executive director of the Minnesota Board of School Administrators, shared his perspective on bullying after the Markert’s story gained media attention recently.
“Obviously, I’m distressed and disheartened because it’s my hometown, but it doesn’t surprise me because I see it at my level as well,” he said.
Kinkel said complaints his office receives about bullying have increased statewide.
“It’s a discussion we all have to have,” he said.
ACEs and bullying
Kinkel said that an increased number of children with Adverse Childhood Experiences is related to bullying.
“What has changed is the number of children coming to school from trauma-infested homes,” Kinkel said. “Trauma biologically impacts their frontal cortex, their social and emotional behavior. You’ve got administrators dealing with a group of kids who might literally not biologically know what they’re doing is wrong.”
He said the biggest issue is funding to help trauma students. “What would help more than anything else is if the federal government would pay what they promised for special ed services,” he said. “They’re supposed to be paying 40% and they’re not, and school districts are eating into their general fund money to subsidize so they don’t have money for other services.”
Kinkel said schools are also dealing with parents who “are buddies with their children and see the school as the enemy.”
“Then you’ve got Instagram, Snapchat and Facebook taking what used to be situations that happened on the playground and it’s like pouring gasoline on a fire,” he said. “It’s combustible. Situations that used to be local explode and go community-wide.”
Social media harassment is something all too familiar to the Markerts. On the last day of Kinsey’s freshman year, another student threatened on Snapchat to beat her up if she didn't quit talking to a certain friend, and warned, "if you're lucky, you'll live."
Kinkel said Minnesota has some of the strictest data privacy laws in the nation, limiting what administrators can share.
“If you asked me right now if anybody filed a complaint against Park Rapids, I would tell you I can neither confirm nor deny that,” he said. “I can’t even tell you if I’m looking into it because of our data privacy laws. Most of us are extraordinarily frustrated that we cannot share the work that we’re doing on behalf of protecting kids.”
In some cases, those data privacy laws lead to a lot of pointing fingers when it families feel as if nothing is being done.
“I’m so tired of a culture that always wants to find blame. We’re going to blame the school, blame administrators,” Kinel said. “We’re all to blame.”
Recourse for parents
Parents who have concerns about the safety of their schools can file a complaint with MSBA. Their ethics committee meets monthly to review complaints.
“My office is seeing an increase in the amount of complaints that are filed against school administrators,” Kinkel said.
One of the ethic codes states, “School administrators must take reasonable action to protect students and staff from conditions harmful to staff and students.”
“The key word is ‘reasonable,’” he said.
Hanna said she always instructed her children to tell an adult if something happens, but Kendyl said she didn't trust her teachers "because they won't do anything about it."
In January, Kendyl and some other students were walking to class when someone tripped her. Another student pushed her and she ran into a door, getting a bump on the head and bending her glasses.
Because she incorrectly said she was pushed into a wall, school staff concluded that Kendyl was lying — though, Hanna said, other students admitted Kendyl was tripped and pushed.
When bullying occurs, Kinkel said it is important parents have documentation.
“We will not rely on your word only,” he said. “We can’t. You’ve got to have proof. Have your kid record it, find witnesses, other kids, other staff. Many districts are creating a culture where you can record it on your cell phone if you see things, a culture where you can report it anonymously.”
Kamryn recorded a bullying incident on her phone but, Hanna said, when shown the evidence, school staff only dinged Kamryn for using her phone.
Kinkel recommends parents to call his office (651-582-8236) first to talk to him about their concerns or leave a message so he can get back to them.
Kinkel said 70% of callers follow through by filling out the complaint form on the MSBA website. “There’s no statute of limitations and anyone can file a complaint with our board,” he said.
When there is evidence there was an ethics violation, Kinkel said that leads to an independent investigation.
Kinkel said alternative schools are another option for parents.
“As this issue gets bigger, I think you will see more of the home-school movement increasing, the charter school movement,” he said.
Parents, schools working together
Kinkel said some school districts form a disciplinary committee as part of the board to deal with these issues, going into closed session when necessary for data privacy.
He said when he works with districts, the first question he asks is what kind of school they want. “You have to start with that,” he said. “What does safety mean? As a community, if we’re going to say it’s gotten out of hand and the bullies are winning, and we have to bring back some balance, then you better support these administrators when they make tough decisions because, by law, we still have to educate these kids. We can’t give up on them.”
Regarding bullying issues, Hanna Markert said school staff "need to follow the handbook. If they believe those are vague rules in there, they need to come up with new ones. … They need to dig a little deeper. They need to start listening to the students."
"They've got a plateful right now," Hanna admitted, "but I do think there is potential for change."