- Brian Chilson
A gathering of around 70 parents, teachers, ministers and Little Rock School District officials met last Saturday at a church near the University of Arkansas at Little Rock to discuss ways to address reports of harassment, bullying and intimidation of Latino students in the Little Rock School District. Headed by Pulaski County Circuit Judge Wendell Griffen, the group said it will meet again in less than a month in Southwest Little Rock, where it hopes to draw more input from Latino parents and students.
The gathering was in response to a September cover story in the Arkansas Times, which reported on a study by UALR sociologist Dr. Terry Trevino-Richard. The study — conducted with anonymous focus groups — found widespread reports of sexual harassment and bullying of Latino students by their African-American classmates in the Little Rock School District and reported complaints by Latino parents and students that their attempts to report the incidents to school administrators were sometimes ignored.
The meeting was held at New Millennium Church, where Griffen serves as a pastor. Speaking to a standing-room-only crowd, Griffen said he was "pleasantly surprised" by the turnout. He started the meeting by sharing his own story of being bullied as the only black male in his class in Delight High School, a situation made worse by the fact that he skipped two grades, making him younger than his classmates.
"I know that bullying hurts," he said. "If you've ever been the only kid on the senior trip who was worried about getting jumped on, you know what it feels like. The perception is that nobody cares."
At times the meeting had the feeling of a tent revival, with Griffen calling on the audience to loudly state their dedication to work together with the LRSD, and to affirm their belief that the district truly wants to solve the problem of bullying. Noting that he's a product of public education, Griffen said he said he didn't want to be part of anything that's an effort to tear down the LRSD.
District Superintendent Morris Holmes was in attendance along with several members of his senior staff. Holmes told the crowd that the district has been developing a strategic response to the reports since the story appeared, and said he would "go to hell and back" to keep students from being abused. He said he has talked to teachers and administrators over the past month, asking them one by one "what did you know?"
"You need to know that we have not taken this lightly," Holmes said. "It hasn't been a game of, 'We didn't like what they had in the paper.' "
After speaking about his seven years as superintendent of the Fort Worth Independent School District, which has a large Latino population, Holmes said that the issue of bullying is an "issue of power."
"Do you not know that the majority almost always abuses the minority? It's a social fact. It's a political fact. It's an economic fact. It is a sexual fact. It is a pervasive fact in our society, and I know it well."
Later in the meeting, there were a few tense moments when Holmes turned to Griffen and spoke of people "questioning his character" in their response to the reports, including an Oct. 18 letter Griffen and the congregation of New Millennium Church sent to Holmes and members of the Little Rock School Board. In the letter, the congregation wrote that they did not "view the responses of Dr. Holmes or the Little Rock School Board as an acceptable acknowledgement that serious problems surrounding the issues of bullying and sexual harassment exist. In fact, we are dismayed by the reaction this far which amounts, in our view, to quibbling about whether Dr. Trevino-Richard's work for the District constitutes a 'study.' "
Associate Superintendent Dr. Sadie Mitchell spoke about the district's response so far, saying that she was "hurt to the core" after reading the story in the Times. "Hispanic parents have called us, angry, because something that happened in 2007 is now a priority," she said.
Mitchell said that the district has polled every school for information on their anti-bullying efforts and is evaluating their responses. The district has also formed an ad hoc committee to research the issues raised by Trevino-Richard's study, and will soon launch a public awareness campaign on the issue of bullying. Mitchell said one of the problems the district has identified is that the LRSD doesn't have a "refined curriculum" on dealing with reports of bullying. LRSD officials later volunteered the use of Chicot Elementary — one of the schools mentioned in Trevino-Richard's research — as a site for the group's next meeting, which Griffen said should happen in less than a month.
Jorge Luna, who identified himself as the owner of a Spanish-language radio station, rose to say that the group needed to do more to get the opinions of blue-collar Latinos with children in the district. "We see the doctors, teachers, principals [here today]," Luna said. "But what happened with the construction workers? What happened with the farm workers? What happened with the people working in the hotels? What happened to the people in the restaurants?"
Local Latina attorney Cristina Monterrey told the group that in the Latino community, there is "a fear of coming forward," which might be a reason bullying isn't often reported to administrators by Latino students. "Everything starts when it's reported," Monterrey said. "A lot of these children, they come from a culture and they come from a background where there is this overwhelming fear of letting anyone know that something is being done to you." Monterrey said that many Latino parents come from political systems where people are sometimes physically harmed for reporting wrongdoing. She asked the LRSD to take that fear into account when coming up with a bullying curriculum.
"There is a cultural barrier there," she said. "There is a language barrier. And we have to reach out into that community to break down that perception."
Katherine Snyder, the principal of Booker T. Washington Elementary Magnet in Little Rock, told the group that she believes adult harassment and bullying are common today, and said children learn what they see from their parents. She said she'd been subjected to what she would consider bullying by a parent at her school within the past week.
"I watch parents bully my teachers," she said. "I watch parents bully their children, and I get bullied by parents. Many of my parents don't know another way to communicate. I don't necessarily think they're bullies, but they do resort to harassment and intimidation because that's the strategy they've found might work for them. I'm saying this because our children who bully are a symptom of a much larger problem."