Ann Arbor Bullying concerns parents at one elementary school One parent describes school as a 'jungle for elementary students'

By Kyle Feldscher

ANN ARBOR, Mich. (AP) -- Does Ann Arbor's Northside Elementary School have bullies? Yes, it does -- a fact Principal Monica Harrold readily admits.

But she says claims from some parents that she and staff at the school are reluctant to deal with bullies are off-base.

"We have issues, I won't pretend we don't," she said. "Every school does because kids are kids. But we try to deal with things, and we try to be as proactive as we can."

Parents of some children who currently attend Northside, along with parents who have transferred their children out of the school, have been making their concerns about the climate at the school known to Harrold and district administrators. They say their children have been taunted and assaulted, and school administrators haven't taken their complaints seriously.

But other parents and teachers disagree with assertions that bullying is any more prevalent at Northside than at other schools.

A sizable contingent of both current and former Northside parents say they're worried about how common bullying is at the school and how it's being handled.

At least four students have been transferred out of the school so far this school year in response to bullying issues, and others have expressed their desire to leave.

Kelli Bullock, who transferred her son to King Elementary School earlier this school year, said she first chose to enroll her son at Northside despite living in the King area. But she now believes Northside is a "jungle for elementary students" instead of a learning institution.

"When my son leaves in the morning, he should be thinking about if he has a test or if he had a field trip," she said. "But instead, he was asking how he should defend himself, what if they lock me in some place?"

Once he was moved to King, Bullock said her son advanced more in a month academically than he did in a year at Northside. Bullock attributed it to the fact that her son is no longer afraid of being bullied.

Bullock and other parents say they weren't satisfied with Harrold and the district's response when they raised concerns about bullying.

Davee Hunter said she plans to move her daughter to a private school after requests to transfer her to another elementary school in the district weren't granted. She said her daughter was the target of bullies who pulled her pants down on the playground, among other incidents, and her daughter is now afraid to go to school.

"I told them, 'She's depressed, she's not learning,'" Hunter said. "Basically, our solution is (private school) or move to a different school district, and it's not fair to relocate to a different area after you've talked to administrators and aren't getting any help."

Hunter said she's still trying to work with various district officials to get her daughter transferred so she doesn't have to make the move to a private school.

There's a history of clashes between Northside parents and Harrold, stemming back to her original transfer to the school in June 2005 from Abbot Elementary School. Documents obtained by The Ann Arbor News in 2005 showed Harrold was transferred from Abbot because she "wasn't sufficiently addressing what administrators called climate issues, a term used to refer to relationships and communication among staff, parents, students and the principal." Harrold said complaints by Northside parents after she arrived were based on rumor and hearsay.

Parent Jennifer Check said former Northside principal Kevin Karr, who was moved to King Elementary School, kept bullying under control and managed the school and parents well when he was at Northside.

"He was just a magician at managing this smoothly and integrating all these issues smoothly," she said. "And everybody just loved the school, the kids, the teachers, the parents."

Check rattled off a litany of instances where she said her son had been taunted on the school bus, punched on the playground and was suspended when she said he was attempting to break up fights. She said many conflicts have arisen when parents attempt to report incidents to school officials.

Check transferred her son to Logan Elementary School.

"The parents said, 'This is what the boys tell us happened' and the teacher said it didn't happen and the principal said it didn't happen," she said, describing the aftermath of one of the incidents. "Finally, the parent who was so frustrated approached the kids who were involved and they said, 'Yeah, we did it, so what?'"

Jack Edelstein said he ran into problems when he asked that his children, twins in fourth grade at Northside, be in different classes, as they had been for the previous three years at the school. Despite eventually getting the request approved, he said the experience left a bad taste in his mouth.

"Unless there's a significant change in leadership, there will be a mass exodus next year, including our children," he said.

A proactive approach is key to combating bullying, Harrold said.

She said the school has monthly assemblies that address topics such as bullying and the importance of school pride. Some classrooms in the school are working on a behavioral system using color-coded cards to keep behavior in check, which has been yielding results, she said.

"We have an open dialogue about bullying concerns," Harrold said. "We've begun to do these pilot programs in various rooms and are working toward a school-wide positive behavior support system."

Published: Wed, Dec 29, 2010