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Battling Bullying

In fighting for a safe school experience for their daughter, Harrises trying to avoid tragic path others have endured

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(Herald Photo Illustration by Heidi Terry-Litchfield)
Bullying in schools can have tragic impacts on the students involved. When the parents of one Morris student heard their daughter talking about suicide as a result of the treatment she was receiving at school, they decided to take action. Dissatisfied with the school’s response, they have contacted the ACLU and the regional and state superintendents.

Dave and Latasha Harris were just looking for a better place to raise their two daughters when they moved to Morris from Joliet in February.

What they’ve found has been anything but better.

Their daughter came home from school one day this spring and threatened to hang herself in her room because of the bullying to which she was subjected at Shabbona Junior High.

“My daughter has been the target of harassment,” Latasha said. “She’s had children at school make statements to her like ‘little black girl drug addict,’ and ‘blacks just want to be like whites’, and she’s had dirty water thrown on her.

“She has threatened to come home and hang herself because she has had enough, her self-esteem has taken a hit.”

Harris said her daughter’s schoolmates are hitting the 11-year-old child where it hurts the most, with personal and racial insults.

Harris went to the school, and eventually to Superintendent Teri Shaw, with her concerns. She admits she eventually got into a verbal altercation at the school, which resulted in her being charged with creating a disturbance at the school.

“My daughter had stopped going to the administration because nothing was being done,” Harris said. “She is not the only child to go through this.”

Shaw said the school had heard the complaints from the Harrises and investigated each complaint, taking appropriate action when necessary, in keeping with its anti-bullying policy.

“We can’t discuss specific children or discipline of children with anyone,” Shaw said.

She sees how it can seem like the school isn’t doing anything when they can’t tell the Harrises what they found in the investigations, nor about any discipline that may have come from the investigations.

The Harrises have taken their daughter to see a psychiatrist at Provena Saint Joseph Medical Center in Joliet,  where they were told her suicidal comments were situational reactions based on torment.

According to the National Youth Violence Prevention Resource Center, almost 30 percent of youth in the United States (or over 5.7 million) are estimated to be involved in bullying as either a bully, a target of bullying, or both.

In a recent national survey of students in grades six through 10, 13 percent reported bullying others, 11 percent reported being the target of bullies, and another 6 percent said they bullied others and were bullied themselves.

A former Coal City family, Mike and Cathy Gettle know the statistics all too well. Their son, Jon, hanged himself eight years ago, at the age of 14, because of being bullied.

“There were signs; we just didn’t know it, didn’t see it,” Cathy said in a telephone interview Thursday. “They say they give away their possessions. Sometimes it isn’t physical possessions they give away, but other things they love. Jon loved Scouts and baseball and he quit both.”

His mother described Jon as a sensitive child who cried easily.

“When a 14-year-old cries when his team loses, it’s easy for others to call him a crybaby,” she said.

The Gettles had also moved to Grundy County to find a better life for their children.

“A year and a half before he died, we lived in Iowa, where he was bullied by a dozen or more kids who made him cry every day,” she said. “We moved to Illinois hoping it would stop.”

It didn’t.

Mike likened the bullying and torment some kids are forced to endure at school to the behaviors in a brood of baby chicks.

“If a brood of chicks finds one chick who is different, they will peck it to death,” he said. “We are basically no better than chickens.”

The Gettles said the main question schools need to ask themselves is, “If you have a bullying policy, are you following through on it?”

The Harrises have kept records of their contacts with the school and have contacted the American Civil Liberties Union, the regional and state boards of education, as well as education leaders in Washington.

“We called the Morris Police Department to let them know about the girls assaulting my daughter by throwing dirty water on her, but they said it is not criminal,” Latasha said. “I’ve researched anti-bullying laws and it is their responsibility to do something. I’m not trying to get anyone in trouble, I just want my daughter to feel safe at school.”

Illinois does have anti-bullying laws in effect and, on April 23, both the Illinois House and Senate passed an amendment to the laws to include cyber-bullying.

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