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Bullying incident results in criminal charges

A bullying incident on a Pagosa Springs Junior High School wrestling team trip resulted in arrest warrants issued and executed on two students.

Although law enforcement involvement in the matter has added a serious dimension to the matter, Archuleta School District 50 Joint continues to address the incident, stressing it has long had measures in place for mitigating bullying on and off school grounds.

According to an Archuleta County Sheriff’s Department incident narrative, the incident, which took place on a school bus carrying the junior high wrestling team home from a meet in Durango on the night of Nov. 12, involved one boy holding a victim against a bus seat while another rubbed his genitals in the victim’s face. It is estimated there were 50 people on the bus at the time.

Sheriff’s Det. George Barter explained the act is known as “tea bagging” and is supposedly a form of joke, but said this incident “crossed the line into a criminal act.”

Normally, the incident would be classified as a misdemeanor third-degree assault but, in this case, the victim was held down, prompting the felony classification, Barter explained.

As of Jan. 6, both arrests had been made.

A third arrest on a lesser charge is possible, relating to a separate incident on the same bus ride, Barter said.

In the incident narrative, the victim reported being continually bullied both verbally and physically by a number of teammates, including those involved in the incident, prior to the incident on the bus. The bullying was reported to one of the team’s coaches, but the situation had not improved.

Junior high principal Chris Hinger defended the actions of the coach, however, stating the coach took appropriate steps to address the situation when previous incidents were reported and that the coach followed protocols in addressing the victim’s prior concerns.

According to Hinger, the district has taken a stand on bullying for a number of years. While bullying is addressed at all levels throughout K-12 education, it is at the junior high school level where the issue is addressed in-depth and systematically, due in large part to the fact that studies have shown bullying behavior peaks at the junior high school level.

“It’s a difficult time for kids,” said Hinger. “We all remember how tough that time of our life was.”

District Superintendent Mark DeVoti stated district doesn’t take a zero-tolerance approach to bullying, saying, “I’d like to say we’re zero-tolerant but it’s hard to make anything zero-tolerance. We have as low a tolerance as, I believe, any district can have.”

What the district has done is put in place a multitiered approach to bullying (along with other behavioral and academic issues) — a program that is entering its third year. Called the RTI (Response To Intervention)-Based Behavior Management Program, the curriculum is offered to all students K-8, but becomes most focused in the seventh and eighth grades.

While fifth- and sixth-graders attend day-long seminars on bullying prevention and defense, it is at the junior high level (seventh and eighth grades) where students are monitored more closely, with daily classes built into academic curriculum that address behaviors and attitudes through a structured environment and multitiered approach.

The first tier (which includes all students) is primarily educational and includes counseling for all students for bully and drug prevention. It is in the first tier where educators consult staff on students who might be at risk for academic problems, substance abuse, bullying or other issues, with a possibility of moving at-risk students into the second tier.

At that next tier (which Hinger reported targeted about 15 percent of students in the junior high school), students are more closely monitored, both on academic and behavioral issues, with more intensive counseling conducted with those students. Among other things, the second tier involves Social Responsibility Training, individual goal-setting or behavior plans, along with increased parental involvement.

“What that amounts to,” Hinger said, “is increased time and support from staff and parents.”

Students unable to successfully navigate secondary prevention techniques (about 5 percent of the junior high population) are moved into “tertiary prevention” — the third and final tier. This tier includes more intensive counseling along with student behavior contracts and increased parental involvement. Students unable to perform adequately within this tier could have classroom hours cut (supplemented with off-campus instruction) as a means to minimize contact with peers, with the hope that the student will “acclimate” to social environments.

Students who continue to escalate antisocial behavior in the final tier face possible long-term suspension or even expulsion. However, Hinger pointed out that there is no set criteria for referral to the second two tiers, no quantitative determination. “Of course, it depends on the frequency or, more importantly, the severity, depending on the incident,” he said.

While the district will not say how it has dealt with the students responsible for November’s incident, officials assured SUN staff they have taken appropriate measures in dealing with those students.

Likewise, the district has remained tight-lipped regarding how it has dealt with the victim in the incident. While the multi-tiered curriculum approach addresses how students can deal with bullies and points students to resources should they become victims of bullying, the emotional and psychological damage caused by bullying remains largely in the hands of individual counselors — problematic at a time when district resources are stretched to the limit (and could possibly face deeper cuts in the near future).

Unfortunately, the effects of bullying can be far-reaching — from issues of low self-esteem to depression — and can be manifested in numerous, and at times, tragic, ways.

In fact, numerous studies have been conducted on the effects of bullying, and while most conclude that most victims of bullying grow up with no deleterious effects from those negative adolescent experiences, there is an indication that a significant subset experiences lasting damage. Some studies suggest two alarming trends in bullying victims. A recent study by researchers at the University of California at Los Angeles (UCLA) suggested that bullying victims are at a much higher risk for suicide and that a large majority of teen suicides correlated with being victims of bullying. Furthermore, an investigation by the U.S. Secret Service on school shootings found that, in over two-thirds of the incidents, school shooters felt persecuted, bullied, threatened, attacked or injured by others prior to the incident.

Meanwhile, DeVoti acknowledges that the district can only do so much. “I know we have the means in place to address it, but it still happens and that is frustrating,” he said.

DeVoti pointed out that the junior high has a part-time assistant principal (due to budget constraints) at a place where bullying peaks among its student population. “I’d like to see that as a full-time position. Because of the nature of junior high socialization and interaction, we need a full-time person.”

In the meantime, the district has acknowledged that a serious bullying incident took place — off school grounds, but nonetheless within the scope of the school’s responsibility — and has taken steps to review how the incident was handled. Both DeVoti and Hinger have stated that the students involved in the bullying incident have been dealt with “appropriately.”

“Sometimes with situations, the resolution is immediately clear cut, and sometimes it takes unpeeling the onion to get to what actually happened, to the bottom of the situation. This is one of those cases. It took a lot of looking into it,” said DeVoti.