Brooke Grier is no stranger to hearing of her children being bullied.
Her 10-year-old son has been called the n-word while riding the bus to school. The same word was used against her now 19-year-old daughter when she was a freshman in high school. And most recently, Grier's 14-year-old daughter, Salaya, has experienced racial harassment from a couple of her ninth-grade peers.
Salaya attends Hiawatha High School. After a cyber bullying incident last month in which Salaya received vulgar, racially-charged text messages from two boys in a class group chat, Brooke Grier decided she had had enough.
"She came home and showed me. Of course, I was upset," Grier said. "She said, 'Mom, it goes on during class. The teacher doesn't do anything when it's going on.'"
According to Grier, Salaya was even crying in class once and the teacher ignored the situation.
"But the boys have told her they do it because they like to see her cry," Grier said.
According to her, one of the images the boys sent was a picture of Salaya taped to the bottom of a shoe. The caption read "F**k I stepped in s***t!!" Grier said another image compared her daughter to an orangutan. And those weren't the only two.
Grier said she recently discovered some students at school also call Salaya "orangutan" on a regular basis.
"She said, ‘Mom, it’s my nickname.’ I said, ‘That is not a nickname.’ I said, ‘Your siblings call you salsa instead of Salaya for a nickname. That’s a nickname — not a name that compares your race to an animal. That’s not OK,’ " Grier said. "She has put up with this for so long that she’s OK with being called an orangutan. I was just flabbergasted. I was so angry."
Grier said her daughter endured similar harassment in eighth grade, but by the time Grier found out about it, it was the end of the school year.
"I have felt bad that we didn't do something in middle school, but she would beg us not to — 'Mom, no. It's just going to get worse. Just let it go.' And her dad and I said, 'Not in high school. We're done,'" Grier said.
What's behind the bullying?
According to Jennie Watson, a licensed social worker with the Topeka-based Family Service and Guidance Center, bullying can have varying effects on a child's mental health.
"Kids are different. People are different — in regards to their resiliency and how they manage stressors such as bullying," Watson said. "Some don't appear to be impacted or affected by it in many ways at all, and those aren't the kids that I see. The kids that I see are the ones that are having some sort of impact.
"And it can affect their grades. It can affect their ability to get along with each other, get along with their parents," she added. "You see some of the somatic symptoms — tummy aches, headaches ... genuinely anything, all the way up to kids who are experiencing suicidal idealization or practice self harming."
According to statistics provided by stopbullying.gov, in 2017, nationwide about 20% of students ages 12-18 experienced some form of bullying. A separate 2017 study by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention also revealed that 19% of students nationwide in grades 9-12 experienced bullying on school property in the 12 months prior to the study.
Watson supervises a team of therapists and case managers who provide services to kids in the school setting. She said it is getting harder to teach young people the consequences of their bullying because of online and electronic interaction, but in many instances it is doable.
"Because it's such a pervasive and ongoing problem, we do have the opportunity to kind of turn that back to them and kind of explore — if you were the one doing the bullying behavior, have you ever been in a situation where you felt like you were bullied? Take it back to that — how did it make you feel?" Watson said. "We want to get back to the underlying need that's behind the behavior.
"Bullying, in my professional opinion," she added, "is one of the behaviors that we sometimes forget there's a need behind it. ... Is it because they're feeling a certain type of way and don't know how to express it? Then we need to teach them how to express it. Is it because there's something bad happening with them — a bad experience that they've had that they're trying to work through? And bad experience isn't necessarily something huge."
Watson also doesn't discount the power of demonstrating positive behavior. She recommends parents role-model positive behavior and start conversations about positive actions with their children. For parents of students who might be experiencing bullying, Watson recommends they help build their children's self esteem and internal resiliency.
"What we're doing is we're teaching our kids how to handle tough situations and knowing who they are truly, knowing the strength within themselves," she said.
For kids who are affected by persistent bullying at school, Watson added, outside help from a mental health professional and constant contact with the school can also be helpful.
After the texting incident last month involving Salaya, Grier said she contacted administrators at Hiawatha High School. To her knowledge, the boys who had sent her daughter the vulgar text messages initially received a few days of after-school detention.
"It’s my understanding the school isn’t allowed to tell us what disciplinary action was taken because of student privacy, but, of course, you hear through the grapevine," Grier said.
That's when word of what the boys had done hit social media. Grier said once it spread over social media, the school district was quick to call her and her husband in for a meeting with the superintendent.
The Hiawatha Police Department also got involved. Chief of Police John Defore said his team investigated the cyber bullying incident and forwarded the investigation to Brown County Attorney Kevin Hill.
Hill said he filed a complaint in juvenile court against the two boys on Sept. 20. The charge was "harassment by telecommunication device."
"As soon as the social media got involved and things began rolling, they (the school district) wanted to meet, and the boys immediately got a week suspension," Grier said. "The way I know that is the superintendent pointed out to me that disciplinary action on this matter includes suspension. ... Although, he wasn’t able to tell me how long because of student privacy. My girls are hearing at school that it’s been a week, and it’s a small school so word gets around."
Hiawatha High School has about 300 students. According to data provided online by the Kansas State Department of Education, the high school's racial makeup in 2018 was 80.3% white, 2.9% African-American, 6.1% Hispanic and 10.7% "other." The racial makeup of public schools statewide last year was 64.2% white, 6.9% African-American, 19.7% Hispanic and 9.2% "other."
When Grier met with the superintendent for the first time, he shared the district's racial harassment policy with her.
"I anticipated that there was nothing on the file (regarding a racial harassment policy), so when I walked into the superintendent’s office and I was given a six-page explanation of their anti-racism policy — which also includes people who are disabled, they’re lumped together — I was shocked," Grier said.
The policy had been omitted from the high school's handbook.
According to Lonnie Moser, superintendent of the Hiawatha Unified School District, the district's book of policies is, in its entirety, about seven or eight inches thick. Therefore, he said, it isn't possible to include every policy in the student handbook.
"Well, with policies — I mean policies are pages and pages and pages long," Moser said. "And that particular part was not necessarily listed in the handbook. That does not mean it’s not policy."
Grier argues, though, that it's an important policy to include — at least a condensed version, she said.
Hiawatha's racial harassment policy was created in January of this year, according to Moser.
"Hiawatha is slow to the game," Grier said.
According to Denise Kahler, director of communications for the Kansas State Department of Education, the state does not require school districts to have racial harassment policies. However, she said, it is required under federal law.
In a follow-up meeting with the superintendent on Sept. 25, Grier said, she was told it wouldn't be difficult to add the racial harassment policy to the handbook for next school year. Adding the policy requires approval from the Hiawatha school board, Moser said. He intends to discuss it with the board at its meeting Monday.
And Grier said she plans to attend.
"He doesn’t think it will be a big deal for the board to do that and approve that, but I kinda feel like we still need to go to the meeting and make sure they’re all still thinking about that," she said.
Moser added that he also plans to pitch some diversity initiatives at Monday's meeting — though he said he can't share exactly what those are until he has them vetted by the board.
"When things like this happen, it’s incumbent upon us to look at how we do things," Moser said. "What are things that our students need in order to better understand and be more in tune and have a better understanding of diversity and all that entails? And I’m not just talking race — I’m talking any kind of diversity there."
At her Sept. 25 meeting with the superintendent, Grier said, he also mentioned the school district might need to look at including religious harassment in the policy.
"But he doesn’t think we need to go there yet," Grier said. "And I said, 'Lonnie, but that’s kind of the problem though — isn't it? It's that we don’t address it until it's a huge problem, so maybe we could go ahead and include some of those things, thinking they might eventually be a problem. And that way we already have something in place.' "