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Fed probe of East Aurora puts bullying in the spotlight

Aattorney Brooke Whitted looks through some papers as AnnForth 14 watches Whitted Cleary Takiff law firm Northbrook. May 17 2013.

Aattorney Brooke Whitted looks through some papers as Anna Forth, 14, watches at the Whitted, Cleary, Takiff law firm in Northbrook. May 17, 2013. Forth, currently a student at Simmons Middle, and another East Aurora middle school students filed complaints that they were bullied. | John Konstantaras~For Sun-Times Media

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Updated: July 5, 2013 6:06AM

AURORA — An Aurora student’s bullying problem began quite normally, but now involves a federal probe of bullying in the East Aurora district.

Even though the federal government is now involved, Anna Forth’s problem started with issues many teens can relate to: jealousy and rumors.

Forth, now 14 and a student at East Aurora’s Simmons Middle School, met the girl that became her bully in second grade. The girls were friends on and off, but Forth said as they got older, the other girl started comparing everything they had: whose swing set was better, who would be the first to get red streaks in her hair.

“She would pick on me but not to where I would worry about it,” Forth recalled.

But in sixth grade, when both girls attended Waldo Middle, the bullying escalated. Forth said the other girl threatened her with guns and knives in the lunchroom. They tried to work it out through the school counselor with a mediation session, Forth said, but it didn’t work.

The next year, the bullying got physical. After rumors flew that Forth was badmouthing the bully and her friends, Forth’s face got pushed into her locker. She received threats that she’d be beaten up. Forth said one of the girls hit her face in class while a teacher was sweeping the halls.

Forth started staying home from school, afraid for her safety. She had trouble eating and sleeping.

Finally, in January, Forth transferred to Simmons Middle School in town. Forth and her mother say it was at the school’s suggestion, though East Aurora school policy states that students are to be transferred at their parents’ request.

Forth and her family also contacted Northbrook-based lawyer Brooke Whitted, who deals often with bullying cases and sits on the state’s anti-bullying task force. After hearing Forth’s story, Whitted filed a complaint on her behalf with the U.S. Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights, which can investigate discrimination based on protected statuses such as race, nationality, sex, disability or age.

Forth said she felt like she “stuck out” at Waldo and that students often called her “white girl.” As of March, Waldo was about 86 percent Hispanic, 8 percent black and 4 percent white.

Forth’s complaint is one of two that have prompted federal investigators to look into bullying in the East Aurora district.

The other is from a 14-year-old Filipino client of Whitted’s who attended Cowherd Middle before she transferred to Simmons. She was hospitalized for cutting and suicidal thoughts after she said she was called names such as “whore” and “slut” and students pushed her. She, too, alleges she was bullied because of her race.

Whitted alleges that both girls were bullied with East Aurora administrators’ knowledge and that they “failed to respond appropriately.” Similar incidents in more than one building are “usually an indication of a sick district,” he added.

According to March letters from the Office for Civil Rights, the investigations do not mean the students’ complaints have merit. The office role’s role is to be a “neutral fact-finder.”

Whitted and his clients hope the federal investigation will prompt district-wide changes that will “fix the climate” of East Aurora schools. East Aurora has declined to comment on the cases, citing the pending investigations, but the district is in the process of implementing a new anti-bullying program this year aimed at improving the school climate.

Bullying and the law

How a school creates a climate in which bullying is taken seriously and teachers, parents and students know how to handle the issue has become a topic of national debate in recent years, as states and local school boards look to put in place not only more bullying policies, but ones that work.

In 2006 and 2007, Illinois legislators passed two laws that mandated bullying prevention education for all students and required all public schools to create and maintain a bullying policy, which has to be updated every two years.

In 2010, legislators passed another law known as the Illinois Prevent Student Violence Act, which explicitly prohibited bullying in school and more closely defined it.

Under that law, bullying is any “severe” physical or verbal act — which includes written or Internet speech — that causes fear of harm, interferes with a student’s academic performance or inhibits a student from receiving school services.

That law also established a task force to look at the causes and effects of bullying in Illinois schools, identify ways to reduce it and evaluate schools’ policies and prevention programs.

In 2011, the group issued a report that said if a school wants to “accomplish transformation” it has to engage youth leaders, use a data-driven decision-making process that can be monitored, offer training to all staff — not just teachers and administrators — and replace punitive “zero-tolerance” policies and discipline practices with more “restorative,” positive ones.

And perhaps most difficult among their suggestions was the need to recognize sometimes uncomfortable “cultural issues” at play, such as racism, sexism and homophobia, that can create a hostile school environment.

Implementing policies

It’s up to individual school districts to implement discipline and anti-bullying programs as they see fit, and not all of them use the same strategies or implement the same program identically.

Positive Behavioral Interventions and Supports, or PBIS, is a popular discipline system in Illinois that is being implemented in many districts including East Aurora, West Aurora, Indian Prairie, Elgin U-46 and Chicago Public Schools.

Though the system is usually implemented in phases over several years and looks different at every school, the general model involves continuously teaching and reinforcing positive behavior to reduce discipline issues and foster a healthy school climate, much as the state task force suggested.

At West Aurora, every school now uses PBIS with a bullying prevention component, but many buildings are in different stages of implementation. West High began two years ago, some elementary schools began six years ago.

Michelle Gallo, who coordinates West Aurora’s PBIS efforts, said before PBIS, many buildings used their own strategies to combat bullying and there was some confusion over what constituted bullying.

Now, she said, schools set expectations and reinforce them over the year and have set plans to deal with students who need more help. Teams of teachers and administrators meet at least once a month to look at data that’s been collected to see what can be done to improve the situation both at a school level and to help individual students.

Documentation key

East Aurora’s Forth and her lawyer, Whitted, both say her ongoing bullying issues weren’t documented well by the school district, which prevented red flags from being raised.

For now, Forth said she is happy at her new school, but she’s scared the bullying is “just going to happen again and get worse” when she goes to high school next year and has to confront the same group that bullied her before she transferred.

She said this situation has been a learning experience for her. She relates to other students who’ve been bullied now and tries to watch out for them at her new school.

“It made me realize how life’s going to be,” she said of the bullying. “You can’t have the whole school be your friend. You can’t please everyone.”

She said she hopes that because she spoke up, other students will benefit.

“Nobody should have to go through what I had to go through,” she said.

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