Schools tout their zero-tolerance policies regarding campus bullying, but you can’t convince Sarah Sims, a Norfolk, Virginia, mother of a 9-year-old fourth-grader, that they’re taking it seriously.
Her efforts to protect her daughter when school officials failed to respond has resulted in a felony charge that carries a five-year prison sentence, reported Virginia’s WAVY TV.
The bullying of Sims’ daughter started at the beginning of the school year at Ocean View Elementary. By the end of September, she was ready to take matters into her own hands. She had repeatedly called the school and sent emails to complain, all without result or even the courtesy of a reply, she said.
“The thing that bothers me the most is that I am yet to get a response from anyone in the administration,” said Sims.
That would seem surprising since the Norfolk Public School District has an anti-bullying policy prominently displayed on its website, with encouragement to report incidents. It has conducted an anti-bullying campaign, complete with a professionally produced public-service announcement.
In 2014, a federal investigation found the district negligent in handling complaints at its middle and high schools about sexual harassment and treatment of students with disabilities.
In a follow-up, parents and students received letters during the first weeks of school detailing ways to report harassment as part of the remedy mandated by the Education Department.
Despite the federal mandate, the district reportedly failed to respond to bullying, even when it was reported by parents.
Chrissie Lanier is such a parent. In 2016, her son, Dominic, then 12, was ambushed in the hallway at Northside Middle School when a student hit him in the back of the head and then in the mouth.
“My son’s lips was stuck to his braces from somebody punching him,” Lanier told WAVY.
Adding insult to injury, the bullying had begun the previous academic year. Lanier had contacted several school officials, but nothing had changed.
“They didn’t protect my son, and I want something to be done about it, not just for him, but any other student that is being bullied,” she said.
So, perhaps the nonresponsiveness Sarah Sims experienced this school year was not so surprising.
Sims decided to gather evidence of the classroom bullying and the fact that school officials were doing nothing to help her daughter. She placed a digital recorder in the girl’s backpack to capture any relevant audio from the classroom.
“If I’m not getting an answer from you, what am I left to do?” Sims asked.
The recording device was discovered. The school has a zero-tolerance policy on electronic devices, which it apparently enforces more rigorously than it does its anti-bullying policy. About a month later, police charged Sims with felony use of a device to intercept oral communication. Adding insult to injury, she was also charged with misdemeanor contributing to the delinquency of a minor.
“Instead of comforting her, she’s going to a magistrate and being handcuffed,” said Kristin Paulding, Sims’ criminal attorney. “They aren’t making this about that classroom. There are charges that carry jail time.”
Significant jail time – five years for the felony charge alone.
“I tried to be fair, but it’s not fair,” said Sims. “There is nothing fair about this.”
Paulding is optimistic the two charges won’t hold up when Sims has her preliminary hearing Jan. 18, but she’s concerned that other parents, fearful for the safety and well-being of their children and frustrated by unresponsive bureaucrats, could come to the same conclusion Sims did and open themselves to serious legal consequences.
Meanwhile, Sims daughter has been transferred to a different classroom.