Bullying, fights plague Kent middle school

When Danielle left Mill Creek Middle school, the bullies followed her. They followed her to the Kent Library, they followed her to the top floor of the Kent Station parking garage. They beat her until she almost blacked out.

She came to as a woman at the top of the parking garage called 911, and she was rescued by a Kent Police officer. While criminal charges were filed against the offending students, Mill Creek officials have done little to curb their behavior, Danielle and her caseworker Tye Whitman said.

According to Whitman, school officials said that because the fight happened outside of Mill Creek's jurisdiction, the school has little power over the students. But when the students posted a video of the beating at school and laughed about it in front of teachers and students, Whitman wondered why the school couldn't at least follow up by penalizing them.

"They recorded this beat-down and then they brought the fight back to (Mill Creek)," Whitman said. She has yet to receive a response.

Danielle's story isn't unique. The girl has asked the Kent Reporter to remain anonymous, choosing a different first name and not using her last name.

According to another student, Alexander Long, there have been as many as seven fights at Mill Creek this year. One of the most recent fights left a girl unconscious and was broken up by security officer Roberto Fuller and two Kent Police officers. Students threaten other students with assault, attack teachers and bully other students both in school and online.

"Kids will be kids," the old adage goes, but people want to know at what point does typical teenage behavior cross the line into violent and dangerous actions that threaten students and teachers alike?

Mill Creek has a strong positive public image, an award-winning school featuring innovative programs. But the newly renovated school at the base of the East Hill is dealing with a second, and much seedier face. Bullying, violence and disciplinary problems are rampant in the school, according to teachers and students.

"It's hardcore, it freaks me out," said an eighth-grader, who wanted to remain anonymous. "It's taken to a level that no situation should be taken to for any reason."

The student said that the school has an anti-bullying campaign, but feels that most of the time it falls on deaf ears.

According to the student, students videotape fights on smartphones in the school and post them to social media outlets such as Facebook.

Veronica Peters removed her daughter from the school over concern for her safety. The girl received a litany of threats and harassment on Facebook, saying that she was going to "get jumped" and "get your ass beat." When they asked the school what they planned on doing about the problem, they got silence, Peters said.

"We went to the school, they said their hands are tied. We spoke to the vice principal and she said that they would look into it and give us a call at the end of the day. They never did," Peters said.

"It's a school full of thugs, they have no discipline and they don't seem to care to want to discipline anything," she continued.

While one student said others like herself at the Kent Technology Academy at Mill Creek are insulated from the bullying, it isn't as easy for other students such as Danielle.

'Kids run the school'

Despite the stories of harassment and fights at the school, Mill Creek senior staff have done little to curtail the problems, say several teachers who asked to remain anonymous.

"Kids know there's no boundaries," said one teacher, "the kids run the school."

The teacher explained that faculty who send too many students to the office are talked to by the vice principal and told to refer the students less. "As the year progressed we would get in trouble for writing up too many referrals," said a teacher.

They continued to say that around two months ago, Mill Creek Principal Sherilyn Ulland told her staff that if they couldn't handle the discipline problems, they should find work at another school.

Ulland denied the allegations that she had discouraged reporting or told her staff to be more lenient on disciplinary write ups.

"I've never asked a teacher not to report an incident," she said.

Kent School District officials could not address specific claims and responses to bullying due to student privacy concerns. They did reassert their stance on the issue though.

"We have zero tolerance for it," said Chris Loftis, the school district's communications director. "We have procedures in place. Every report of bullying is taken very seriously."

Ulland said that bullying has actually decreased during previous months.

"Our discipline percentages have gone down," she said. "We have been looking at our discipline rate each month and the last two months all referrals to the office have reduced, so we are actually in a very positive trend."

She says that there are a number of different counselors and support staff available to children. They include mental health services on campus and an AmeriCorps "mentor."

Ulland was unable to comment on the situation with either Danielle or the Peters' daughter because of privacy concerns.

"Everybody wants the best for their children," Loftis said in reference to the withdrawals, "so when people take actions to get what they perceive is a better situation, that's something that we're always supportive of."

The district also faces a difficult situation with finding the appropriate penalties for problem students. Suspending a student for too long can cause them to fail out of school all together and "change the trajectory of their life," said Loftis, while being too lenient won't get the message across.

The reality of Danielle and the Peters' situations is that ultimately, unchecked bullying at Mill Creek can deprive good students of good teachers, instead of getting rid of the bad students.

"Why does she have to go through the pain of this?" Whitman said. "Her protection, and not having to hide is more important than staying at Mill Creek."

While it can reflect positively on a school's report card to have a minimal amount of expulsions and suspensions, an under-reporting of incidents could prolong a problem that can eventually have serious consequences. Sooner or later, Whitman said, these students will grow up and trade the fists for knives.

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