LAUREL — Multiple Laurel parents say they are currently— or planning on— homeschooling their children following claims of bullying in Laurel schools.
The parents voiced their concerns on a social media post in a private Laurel resident group after a concerned mother posted asking for advice on dealing with bullying for her son.
Samantha Willis from Laurel is a mother of six and told MTN News on Wednesday that the problem is so bad, she's considering pulling her children from the schools and switching to homeschooling.
“I actually pulled them (temporarily) from school last year due to it. You bring the issue to the teachers and it just gets brushed off,” said Willis. “(Their policy is) the student is to come to the teacher and the teacher contacts the counselor, and the counselor is supposed to bring the students in to talk. And if they need extra counseling that’s available. But as far as that goes, there’s really not much happening."
Willis explains her son is being called names and has seen the violence turn physical.
“He was actually being called gay by this kid. According to the counselor, kids that age don’t know what that means,” Willis said in an interview at a downtown Laurel coffee shop. "He’s coming home crying every day. He doesn’t want to go back to school because of it. If this continues, I’m going to pull him again and homeschool. I’m at a loss."
And it's not just her son who is experiencing these problems.
"My daughter is also being bullied, and it’s only getting worse. Nothing is being done. She also says that she can’t tell the teachers because they don’t hear what the other kids are saying to her. Teachers are yelling at kids to be healthy when it comes to eating as well. Kids are only allowed so many times to go to the bathroom during school. If your kid is sick, we are told to send them to school," Willis said.
Willis was one of multiple parents contacted by MTN News who described a culture of bullying within schools at all levels. All expressed frustration at what they called the school district refusal to address the ongoing problem.
When reached by MTN News, Laurel Superintendent Matt Torix said the school district has a zero-tolerance policy on bullying. He acknowledged that bullying happens in every school, but he declined to comment directly on any of the concerns raised by these parents.
Education experts acknowledge that bullying is a difficult problem to solve and police, but the consequences of allowing it to continue can be severe. Nationwide, about 14 percent of public schools report that bullying is a discipline problem occurring daily or at least once a week.
Willis said this is not a new issue in Laurel schools, and it isn't exclusive to one age group.
“I believe it’s all grades. It’s always been an issue. I started school here in Laurel in fourth grade, and it was the same,” Willis said. “I hope everything gets better, because if not, I’m pulling my kids. I don’t want them to think it’s ok to be bullied, and nothing being done."
While Willis is still considering homeschooling, other parents have already taken the step.
Amber Penne, a Laurel mother of three, explained Wednesday she saw a major change in her son once he started the third grade at Graff Elementary School in Laurel. He has since been pulled from the school and is now homeschooled.
“My kid who went from adoring going to school, it was the highlight of his day, would cry in the morning," Penne explained. "He would say, 'I don’t wanna go to school, the teacher is mean to me, the other kids are mean to me.'"
Penne said before the bullying started, her son once tried to fake being healthy so that he could go to school when he had the flu. Now he cries before he has to go.
Even the teachers are not intervening when other children are bullying each other, she said.
Penne explained that she informed her son's school that he would be homeschooling a few weeks ago, and has not received an email or letter since, until Wednesday.
During the interview with MTN News, Penne's phone began to ring, and her child at home frantically asked for her to speak to the district's school resource officer and a school administrator, who were on her doorstep.
The officer and administrator showed up unannounced to ask why Penne's son had not been in school. She responded she informed them a while back that he would not be returning and was being homeschooled.
Willis claimed the school has always sent an email and letter before resorting to an unannounced visit, so Penne was shocked to receive this call.
Another Laurel mother of four, Alisha Victor, agrees that bullying is a problem in Laurel.
Victor told MTN News on Wednesday that her family moved to Laurel from Billings 10 years ago, and she was initially excited to move her children to a smaller school. But that excitement quickly turned to fear.
“I’ve had kids at every school. South, West, Graff, and now the high school. About the time we hit Graff is when we started having problems with the kids,” Victor explained. “I like how Laurel has a zero tolerance for bullying policy, and yet I’ve had all of my kids bullied."
Victor explained her children have all been bullied since they moved to Laurel schools, and the impacts are lasting.
“My now 16-year-old has asthma, and one of the other kids on the playground stole her inhaler and just started spraying it,” Victor said. "A girl came up behind my daughter and kicked her leg out from behind."
The constant bullying has led Victor's children to live in fear and with constant anxiety.
“From the time she left our house at 6:50 a.m., until well after she got home, nonstop anxiety attacks every day of the week,” Victor explained. “I’ve had days where I’ve literally sat in my car for 20-plus minutes arguing with my kid on going to school."
Victor said her 16-year-old doesn't even want to leave the house out of fear she will run into her bully somewhere else in Laurel.
And when Victor has attempted to speak with the school about these issues, she said she has been met with denial and excuses.
“I called and left a message, two days later I still hadn’t heard back from anybody," said Victor. "When I went in, that was the day the principal told me she needed to grow thicker skin, she’s sensitive, and ‘kids will be kids’."
When Victor attempted to address the issue, she said the school shut her down.
“They always claim that they didn’t catch it on camera. We basically got told there’s nothing we can do,” Victor said. “If you were paying attention, you would know there’s an issue."
Victor said she knows of many other parents who have pulled their children from Laurel schools or are considering it. But when it comes to options, there are few.
Victor was told her children could transfer to another district, but they would have to pay $2,000 per year. Or, they could switch to half-days or homeschooling.
But Victor explored her options for one of her daughters and found another solution.
"We sent her to live with my mom for a couple of months. Her grades went from C’s, D’s, and F’s to all A’s with one B just by going to a different school," Victor said.
But these issues need to be addressed, and according to Desire Meismer, a counselor at Yellowstone Counseling Center, it is crucial children feel heard when making these claims.
"Kids (need to) know they’re supported. Who are their safe people, who can they talk to, both at school and at home and within their friend groups," Meismer said on Thursday. "It’s really important that kids know they’re heard, that they’re going to be helped, those are some of the biggest components."
And as for lasting impacts from bullying—Meismer said there are quite a few.
“Unfortunately there are a lot of different impacts. There can be those psychological impacts, there can be impacts on their academic performance, and there can be impacts on relationships. And there can be physical impacts too,” Meismer said. “Some of those things that they see of course increase in anxiety, there could be increases in depression, and increased incidents of lower self-esteem and self-worth. Unfortunately, you can see that there can be an increase in self-harm or suicidal behavior which is really concerning."
Meismer said bullying causes high amounts of stress in the body that could cause things like stomach aches, headaches, difficulty sleeping, and more.
According to Meismer, if a child is dealing with a bully, they should speak with a counselor or other trusted adult. But if they don't feel heard in who they confide in, more issues can arise.
“Probably a lack of safety. If things are not being done they could not feel safe in that environment, and that’s pretty negatively impactful as well,” Meismer said. “It’s not surprising that parents are seeing those increases in anxiety and panic because those are things that can happen with individuals who are experiencing bullying."
Penne said she sees these problems.
“I have had friends that have had their children physically bullied by other kids and even sent in pictures of bruises," Penne said. “My husband and I just decided it’s not worth his mental safety."