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Parents express concerns of ongoing bullying at Lafayette Sunnyside Intermediate; administrators respond

Part one of a three-part special report on claims of ongoing bullying at Lafayette Sunnyside Intermediate School. This report is laying out parents' claims and how the school is responding.

Posted: Jun 10, 2021 1:33 PM
Updated: Jun 10, 2021 1:34 PM

LAFAYETTE, Ind. (WLFI) -- Parents claim that problems of bullying at Lafayette Sunnyside Intermediate School are out of hand. On News 18, we're giving you an in-depth look at these claims and how the school is responding in a three-part series. A trigger warning for readers, topics of suicide are mentioned in this story.

"There's a problem, and I think that the consistent piece of this problem is Sunnyside," said Melissa Lynch, mother of Anna Lynch who claims she's been a victim of bullying at Lafayette Sunnyside.

Parents have turned to protesting in hopes of bringing change. On Tuesday, Jun. 2, several parents and their kids gathered outside the school for a peaceful demonstration holding anti-bullying posters, hoping to bring awareness to the issues. Several of those parents say they’ve all been through the same cycle of their child being bullied, talking to administrators about the issues, either not hearing anything from administrators or administrators telling them it's handled, and then the bullying continues. But it's important we first look at what the school defines as bullying.

According to the Indiana School Safety Code, bullying is defined as overt and unwanted repeated acts or gestures. That's including verbal or written communications transmitted, physical acts committed or any other behaviors committed.

"Because of my weight, I have been bullied. People have wished death on me and called me some not-so-nice names."

This is the opening statement from a letter written by Sunnyside 5th grade student Anna Lynch. She said her experience falls right in line with the school safety code definition of bullying. She claims she experienced everything from verbal, to cyber to even physical bullying. She wrote the letter to help express her feelings and cope with what she's been through.

"Anna would come home and say, I had a bad day -- there are some kids that weren't nice to me," said her mother Melissa.

Melissa said these conversations started becoming consistent, and it was always the same few students causing her harm.

"I would just say, well did you tell the teacher and she would say, 'yeah, I did tell the teacher,' and then I expected since I wasn't contacted that it was being taken care of but it just kept going," said Melissa.

She said she and her husband went to the school several times to talk with administrators but the bullying continued.

“You know, you finally realize that nothing is being done but you know, when we started going to the office, they weren't going to help us at all,” said Melissa.

Sunnyside student Aiden Zeck said he also met a dead end with administrators when it came to seeing a resolution to the incident he endured.

“I was going over to the sink to do something, I think or I was going over to help someone and he just came over in my ear and said "die." I was like, 'what? Why,'” said Aiden.

This happened to him in 5th grade. Now finishing his 6th-grade year, his mother Tina said that comment in the classroom caused a ripple of negative effects on his mental health.

“He had mentioned that he was going to kill himself a couple of times and that's when he told us about this other student telling him that,” said Aiden’s mother Tina Zeck. “It broke my heart because, I mean, you never want to hear that from your child.”

Tina said after informing the teachers, they did work to separate Aiden and the other student, but she said no further act of bullying prevention was put in place. And seeing that this is how it's ended for several students who have reported being bullied, she as well as all the other parents are trying to figure out what it is about Sunnyside that cases of bullying seem so prevalent.

“Sunnyside, they threw all the elementary schools into one building so that, I think, could have been an issue,” said Tina. “I guess just kind of throwing everybody in there you don't really know what to expect.”

Population plus age could be the root of the problem these parents and kids are facing. According to Dr. Alicia Clevenger, the school's Assistant Superintendent for Curriculum and Instruction, the school is housing nearly 1,200 students per year.

“It's a delicate age I think and so at Sunnyside, you are all the sudden bringing every fifth-grader and every sixth-grader in our district into one building,” said Clevenger.

She said parents expressing concerns about bullying isn't new to school administrators.

“I think there's always been an issue,” said Clevenger. “I think it’s maybe come to light more in the last few years or the last couple of years with the increased use of social media.”

While she acknowledges that there are students who have experienced bullying at Sunnyside, she said some of these frustrated parents could be misunderstanding the difference between a child being bullied versus two children having a conflict.

“I can't say that bullying is prevalent, there are misbehaviors that are prevalent,” said Clevenger. “It's about a leverage of power and it's not -- when it's an equal participation like a fight where they are both throwing punches or name-calling, there's no leverage of power there so that's not bullying.”

She said the school has dealt with several claims of bullying that, after investigation, were determined as a conflict. But for the cases that are indeed bullying, she said the school follows state protocol.

“It's taken very seriously and so we have an anti-bullying plan that the district follows and a lot of times its consequences but it also has to be in conjunction with education and counseling services and things of that nature,” said Clevenger.

She believes these parents could be frustrated for not being informed on exactly how the school is handling the bully.

“The reason why we cannot share that information with parents is due to federal law, and we refer to it as FERPA,” said Clevenger.

FERPA is an acronym that stands for Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act. It works to protect a child's educational record. Once the school does discipline a bully for their actions, that record is then protected by this Act and cannot be disclosed to any other person.

But Anna's mother Melissa said her frustration does not lie in not being informed on how the bully was punished. She, like other parents, said the anti-bullying plan is not working.

“I never expected to be contacted and to be told so and so was suspended from school or had a detention or anything like that but I did expect for changes to be made,” said Melissa. “I expected for my daughter to not come home from school saying the same names and saying the same types of behaviors are occurring.”

“I feel like the school's not doing enough to protect the kids that are being bullied,” said Tina.

Our next special report this month will be taking an in-depth look at the school's anti-bullying plan and a new program they've implemented. We'll find out if parents think it's enough to keep their kids safe. The story will air on Wednesday, Jun. 16.

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