South St. Paul students stage walkout over bullying in school


Hannah Burlingame/Review • Students held signs with varying messages that all had one thing in common: bullying should not be tolerated in schools.

courtesy of Christina Goers Videen • During the Jan. 12 FaceTime meeting with Superintendent Dave Webb, concerns raised by students filled a whiteboard showing a range of issues, from fighting in hallways to no one listening when something is reported.

At 8:50 a.m. on Jan. 12, as students at South St. Paul Secondary were moving between classes, a group of students walked out of school. This was no field trip — the students walked out because they felt the school and South St. Paul School District weren’t doing enough to combat bullying and fights taking place in school. 

A group of roughly two dozen students walked from the school to the district’s offices a few blocks away in freezing weather, while other students met in a lecture hall for a meeting with Principal Chuck Ochocki. 

 

‘Enough is enough’

Alexis Watkins, a student in the South St. Paul district, organized the walkout after she said her sister was bullied, and she’d had enough.

“I’ve wanted her to stand up for herself and she can’t because she’s scared to,” Watkins said.

The reason for the walkout was to promote change. Watkins said something needs to be done about the school’s zero tolerance policy on fights, because she thinks it is not effective. Students are fearful to stand up for themselves because of the risk of punishment, and others are afraid to intervene for the same reason.

Watkins said the school handbook is not followed by either the school’s administration or students.

Current policy in regards to bullying outlines a number of consequences, ranging from a meeting with a counselor/administrator to a 10-day suspension, and can be meted out regardless of who initiates the bullying.

Bella and Katelyn, both juniors, participated in the walkout. Bella said two students had killed themselves recently because of bullying.

“After it happens, they always say ‘oh, we’re going to fix things’ and they don’t fix anything,” Bella said. 

Katelyn said she feels staff at the school could do more to help get students  to care. Clubs have been formed to raise awareness about bullying and mental health, but the school isn’t backing the clubs enough to get students to participate.

Bella, who was bullied at her old school, said she didn’t care about the consequences of participating in the walkout, which would be considered an unexcused absence if students did not return to class after the meetings.

“People said this wouldn’t make a change, but now they’re paying attention,” she said. 

 

School response

Ochocki said he was sent a link on Jan. 10 to the SSP Neighborhood Facebook page and started several conversations with some students involved. It was on Jan. 11 that he was alerted to the possibility of the walkout.

Ochocki sent out an email offering an alternative to the walkout, inviting students to go to the lecture hall.

“I was approached by several students who were frustrated with the idea of the walkout. They asked me for a chance to share their concerns,” Ochocki said, adding the meeting started with roughly 140 students.

Concerns raised included bullying, the consequences of bullying, mental health and teen suicide. 

Ochocki said the school and district are reviewing its systems regarding student behavior and conduct. 

“We are not done listening to the students. First, we need to continue the conversation that was started on Friday,” Ochocki said.

Sara Martin’s daughter went to the meeting held by Ochocki instead of walking out. She said her daughter told her there were concerns that the meeting was going to be Ochocki talking at students. However, she said he sat there and listened.

“We’re on the right path when at least there’s listening. Now it’s about what kind of actions can be taken,” Martin said.

 

Video conference

South St. Paul Schools Superintendent Dave Webb, who was out of town the day of the walkout, spoke to the students who’d arrived at the district offices via FaceTime video conferencing.

“We still needed to hear from students and make sure all voices were heard,” Webb said in an interview.

Webb said he heard from each student in the meeting, getting their personal takes on what was working and what needed to change, and it was a powerful experience. The key concerns were about bullying, student conflicts and fights.

“Nobody wants to see either of those in our schools and we need to work together to end it,” Webb said.

Ideas brought up by students in the meeting included more staff to help support and eliminate problem behaviors and more training and support for current staff.

There are programs in place at all schools to help students when it comes to mental health support, Webb said. The school district has a grant from the county for mental health counselors but concerns about mental health are still being heard.

School staff is also receiving training on suicide support and prevention.

“No student in our system should be struggling without mental health support because it is in every one of our schools,” Webb said. 

 

Parent involvement 

Beth Miller said she heard about the walkout earlier that week from her ninth-grade son. 

“I planned on supporting [the kids] right away because I know that bullying at South St. Paul is an issue and always has been an issue,” Miller, who graduated from South St. Paul in 2000, said.

She said she originally heard students were planning on walking out and just going home. Miller told her son that’s not the way to do it — she said the group needed to figure out what their goal was and who needed to hear it in order to make change.

She suggested walking out and going to the district office. Miller said she was proud and impressed, not only by the number of students that showed up, but also by the way the kids acted.

During the hour meeting with Webb, the phone was passed around and each student in the meeting had the chance to tell him how they felt.

“There were a couple of kids in that room that just hit the nail on the head ... They came in there knowing what they were talking about,” Miller said, adding it’s time for real change.

An idea Miller had was for a Good Samaritan clause to be added to the student handbook. She said many students are afraid to intervene in bullying situations because of the consequences.

“If they don’t do something physical, something actual, it’s the same meetings. It’s just the same talks,” Miller said.

Webb said school administrators will continue to make recommendations to the school board on what the next best steps are.
 



Parents come together to help find solution

On Jan. 16, a group of parents, students and school district staff gathered in a room at Central Square Community Center for a listening session. Those in attendance had the chance to voice their concerns regarding what is taking place in South St. Paul schools regarding bullying and fighting. 

Roughly 40 to 50 people were in the room throughout the meeting.

Sara Martin, parent of a South St. Paul Secondary student, said a group of six parents had a discussion over coffee where they realized something needed to be done.

Lauri Flatley, who has previously served on the school board, said it became apparent to both her and Martin that a face-to-face conversation needed to happen.

The intent of the meeting was not to solve the problem but to hear what people had to say. The school board and the principals of the school were invited. 

“I was very pleasantly surprised by the amount of representation at the meeting, who came to listen from the school,” Martin said. “They did a nice job of saying very little and just taking notes.”

Martin said both the board and Superintendent Dave Webb alluded to plans to take action but they couldn’t expand on it. 

At one point in the meeting, Flatley asked those in the room to raise their hands if they were afraid this conversation was going to go nowhere. Most of the hands went up. 

Flatley said the students at the meeting had a lot to say. She said students may not be feeling empowered to stand up for themselves and staff may not feel empowered either.

Martin said some of the accountability needs to be put back on students but they are afraid, and that kids need to have the skills of conflict resolution.

“We parents can’t fix it all the time but now it’s out of control,” Martin said.

Flatley said there may need to be a parent roundtable created to bring information on what they are hearing from their kids back to the school.

“I kind of think we have a responsibility to continue,” Martin said.



 

– Hannah Burlingame can be reached at 651-748-7824 or hburlingame@lillienews.com.

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