COMMENTARY By David Carroll
CHATSWORTH, GA (WRCB)- I spent a most unusual evening in Chatsworth, GA Tuesday night. For the first time in my career, I moderated a forum on schools, in which school administrators and employees did not attend. Not that it was poorly attended: attracting a crowd of 200 people on a basketball night in Murray County is no small feat. But the total solidarity of Murray County school officials and Board members avoiding a Town Meeting on Bullying boggles the mind.
The idea for a Town Meeting came after observing the reaction to a news story I reported last month in Chatsworth. The story featured David and Tina Long, whose 17-year-old son Tyler hanged himself on October 17. The Murray County High School junior had Asperger's Syndrome, a form of autism. The phrase, "he couldn't take a joke" is used rather loosely these days, but in Tyler's case, that was part of what he dealt with each day. He had difficulty "reading" facial expressions and body language, creating some awkward social situations. Like a lot of kids who are "different," Tyler was victimized by bullies. The Longs say he had a particularly bad day at school one Friday, and the next morning they found him in his bedroom.
As reported first on WRCB and later by various other media outlets, the Longs feel strongly that school administrators looked the other way while their son was bullied. "Boys will be boys" was a common excuse, they say. The Longs say they contacted school officials repeatedly. Meetings were scheduled, but key school administrators would fail to show, according to the Longs. Our efforts to verify the Longs' statements were unsuccessful, as Murray County Superintendent Dr. Vickie Reed would not respond to interview requests, and her media liaison, Dean Donehoo said he could only express sympathy to the Long family, but could not comment on individual student situations due to legal considerations.
STRONG RESPONSE FROM VIEWERS
The response to our story, and those of other news sources, was strong. Comments poured in, most from Murray County, and many detailing similar bullying stories. There was a common thread: School administrators were not responsive. They didn't take it seriously. Students were afraid to go to school, afraid to get on the bus, afraid to go to the bathroom.
So, to me, a Town Meeting on the topic seemed like a good idea. Bullying is far and away the number one complaint I've received in 16 years of School Patrol reporting at Channel 3. From Sequatchie County, to Rhea County, to Hamilton County, north Georgia and beyond, I've interviewed students, teachers, parents and superintendents looking for answers. But I'd never run into a brick wall like Murray County Schools.
To his credit, Mr. Donehoo is an articulate spokesperson for Superintendent Reed. He has a legal background, and knows what to say, and what not to say. But with all due respect, he is not the Superintendent. So first I politely, and repeatedly requested an interview with Dr. Reed. Day after day after day. No response. (I've since been told by other reporters who cover Murray County with some regularity that this is not unusual. She sent an e-mail this week, telling me that Murray County has implemented "innovative anti-bullying programs." That's all she'll say, and students at the Town Meeting were not aware of any such programs).
So the Town Meeting was quickly put into motion, with just eight days notice. The Longs faithfully passed out flyers and helped spread the word. County Commissioner David Ridley worked long and hard to provide a roomy meeting place, complete with comfortable seating, heat, and a professional sound system. The county Sheriff, the city police chief, a detective, the mayor, state representatives, a psychologist and a pastor all quickly agreed to sit at the head table. They would be there to answer questions and offer solutions. There was even a visitor from New York: award-winning documentary filmmaker Lee Hirsch plans to include Murray County in his upcoming "Bully Project." (More info at www.leehirsch.net)
SCHOOL SYSTEM ATTENDANCE: ZERO PERCENT
But, mysteriously missing from the RSVP list were Murray County School officials. More than twenty Central Office administrators, principals, assistant principals and guidance counselors were invited. Only two Board members responded. Both had other plans. Everyone else was silent. And none, not one showed up. Let's look at the odds. Twenty of the county's top educators, all with "plans" on a night when 200 people came together to seek improvements in a school safety issue that has enveloped Murray County.
Before the meeting on Tuesday, some attendees confided to me that word had been spread in certain circles that the event would be "a circus," "a lynch mob" or both. I'm happy to report that instead, for ninety minutes, adults and children told of their experiences with bullying. Some were victims; others admitted they had done the bullying. There was no shouting, no finger-pointing, no profanity. I attempted to set the proper tone at the very beginning, and the audience was respectful and sincere. Any of Murray County's elected School Board members, or Central Office administrators could have benefited from sitting at the panel, even declining to comment, but at least listening and taking notes to work on making Murray County Schools a safer environment for all students. But they chose not to do that. Every one of them.
And the fact that not a single educator attended lends credence to what one source told me after the meeting: that educators were "warned" not to attend. Certainly that statement cannot be verified. You, the reader are welcome to draw your own conclusions. (One attendee told me after the meeting, "We sure could use a Rhonda Thurman on our School Board," referring to the Hamilton County Board rep who is often the lone dissenting voice on many issues).
HERE'S WHAT THEY MISSED
What would Murray County school officials have heard, had they attended the meeting? From their lack of interest, they're surely not reading this article, and may have avoided our news coverage, as well as that of the local papers. So I'll share the details briefly: they would have heard students tearfully detailing being bullied, wrongly accused, and humiliated in open-stall bathrooms. They would have heard constructive suggestions for more, better trained resource officers. Ideas on student honor councils to better enforce and encourage good behavior. Plans to establish parent advocate groups to help families approach school officials on bullying issues. Goals of uniting churches and support groups to educate families on spotting both bullies and victims. And heart-tugging testimony from Tyler Long's younger siblings, 15-year-old twins Taryn and Troy, who have endured bullying and ridicule themselves, even after Tyler's death.
So, to the disappointment of some, there was no circus, no lynch mob. And to my own disappointment, not a single representative of Murray County's school system. Do I think Murray County is the Bullying Capital? Absolutely not. But do I think that Murray County Schools could do more to fend off such a reputation? Let's just say that showing up would be a start.
Contact David Carroll at firstname.lastname@example.org
The views and opinions expressed in this commentary are those of the author and not of Channel 3 Eyewitness News, its management, its employees, or its affiliates.