Play on words
A legal definition stifles discussion of bullying
Jose Reyes-Urtiz, the deceased suspect in the Sparks Middle School shooting, was bullied, but no one in officialdom will say so. As a result, what the boy experienced is being trivialized as “teasing.”
A lengthy report on the incident by the Sparks Police Department and other reports paint a picture of a suspect who was sensitive and easily hurt, who cried easily or became angry in lower grades, whose classmates in elementary school were protective of him, but whose classmates in high school taunted and harassed him, and who kept most of this to himself with the result that no one suspected what he was planning.
The report did not address whether there was link between what Reyes endured and what he did on October 21, 2013. On that date, the report says, Reyes went to school with a gun in his backpack. He shot and wounded a student, shot and killed teacher Michael Landsberry, shot at and missed teacher Eric Perez, and shot and wounded a second student. Reyes then shot and killed himself.
At a news conference, Sparks police chief Brian Allen said Reyes did not experience bullying within the meaning of Nevada law. That did not mean Reyes did not experience other kinds of bullying. Allen described him being harassed in ways that did not fall under the law and he did not address whether that treatment motivated Reyes.
“Information gathered indicated the following things occurred during [physical education] class and that [student] was involved in several of these instances,” Allen said. “[The student] was observed telling the suspect that he didn’t have the muscles to participate in PE, called him names during PE and at one point was involved in an incident where the suspect had water spilled on his pants and kids made fun of him for ’peeing’ his pants. … Information gathered indicated that some students made fun of the suspect and mocked him for his speech pattern. Information was provided regarding students calling the suspect ’stupid’ and/or ’retard’ in the hallways, and it was reported some students poked the suspect in the side.”
One student said other students once pulled Reyes’s pants down, but that incident was not confirmed by police, which apparently means no second witness to the incident could be found (questions were not answered at the news conference).
“If that is all true, if even half of these things are true, I would say he was being bullied,” said licensed clinical social worker Diana Glomb later. “As an outside observer I would call it bullying.”
However, apparently to distinguish between legally actionable bullying and bullying that is not addressed by the law, Allen avoided using the term at all, instead saying Reyes was “mistreated by students at Sparks Middle School.” He used the word “teased” at one point, a term also later used at a Washoe County School Board news conference.
The SPD report on the shooting reads in part, “No evidence was identified that indicated Reyes was bullied by the definition of state law. However, it is clear [that] on numerous occasions he was treated poorly, teased, called names and mocked by other students.”
If bullying took place, it doesn’t necessarily mean it was the motive for the shooting. That requires evidence, and Allen did not say the investigation found that. Reyes left two notes, one citing bullying, the other denying it was the motive, though that note was addressed to his parents and may have been an effort to spare their feelings.
This tiptoeing around the word bullying troubles Clark County Sen. David Parks, author of most of the state’s anti-bullying law. He encourages Nevadans to talk about the problem, and avoiding the term discourages that dialogue.
“I don’t have a specific answer on this,” he said. “It takes a lot of peoples’ efforts to address this issue. A lot of people are just simply ignoring the problem and presuming it won’t escalate to something else.”
Using euphemisms aggravates that avoidance, he said. “It’s part of the overall problem.”
“It doesn’t seem to promote the dialogue, and it’s sort of like climate change—we don’t want to address it,” Glomb said. “But it’s a very real fact, this intimidation of each other. It’s like rape on campus, experiencing power over another.”
University of Nevada, Reno sociologist James Richardson said, “Language is everything. If a huge battle goes on over terms, then those who get to define terms win the war.” He said that in a lengthy report, language should have been found to distinguish legally prosecutable bullying from other types of bullying without making it sound petty, as with “teasing.”
Avoidance also curbs examination of the usefulness of anti-bullying education. Sparks Middle School is the second incident that raises questions about anti-bullying instruction. Reyes was attending school 8 days and 10 days before the shooting, days when anti-bullying videos were shown. Six days before the Sparks shooting, a Carterville, Illinois, school boy killed himself a day after viewing a school anti-bullying video. That suicide came on “National Spirit Day,” a national anti-bullying education day.
While Reyes may have been bullied, and notes left by him make it clear he planned the shooting incident, that does not necessarily establish that the bullying caused the shooting incident, as some reporters assumed. Still others assumed there was no bullying. The SPD report did not suggest that there was a cause-and-effect relationship. In the absence of such an official finding, reporters drew their own conclusions. The second question addressed to school board members at a news conference that followed the release of the report assumed that bullying caused the incident, whether the report did or not: “What is being done about bullying in schools so that this doesn’t happen again?”
While the report played word games with bullying, the rest of the report was deadpan. The SPD report also provided information on the place of pop culture in Reyes’ life, including internet searches and video games. but, again, did not suggest causation. It just provided information. Allen said that of 69 games in the household, 47 were “violent themed first person shooter or shooter type games.” Because Allen did not take questions, it is not known whether it was Allen himself, his department, or some outside body that decided the 47 games fell into a violence theme category.
Like the Allen comments and the SPD report, a school board statement was restrained. Board chair Barbara Clark read a statement for the board saying that members would not hurry any conclusions until they have time to analyze the report’s 1,300 pages.
“[W]e in the coming weeks will review in depth the Sparks Police Department report in its entirety to see what we as a district can do to prevent such a tragedy from happening again,” Clark said. “We will look at what we did right and where we need to improve.”
Superintendent Pedro Martinez said, “First of all, and I’m certain you know this, we own whatever happens in our buildings. We will always be accountable for anything that happens.”
After Clark and Martinez spoke, Clark threw it open to questions from the large group of reporters. But the question period was cut short by a school district staffer after just four questions because, she said, the board had to go back into session again. However, after the news conference ended, the board did not go back into session. It took a break. One district official said privately that the staff was likely reluctant to have some questions raised.
One question that did get asked was “What is the difference [between bullying and teasing]?” It was not answered.
The section of Nevada Revised Statutes (Nevada’s basic laws) that cover crimes defines bullying this way:
“Bullying” means a willful act which is written, verbal or physical, or a course of conduct on the part of one or more persons which is not otherwise authorized by law and which exposes a person one time or repeatedly and over time to one or more negative actions which is highly offensive to a reasonable person and:
(1) Is intended to cause or actually causes the person to suffer harm or serious emotional distress;
(2) Poses a threat of immediate harm or actually inflicts harm to another person or to the property of another person;
(3) Places the person in reasonable fear of harm or serious emotional distress; or
(4) Creates an environment which is hostile to a pupil by interfering with the education of the pupil.
That is Nevada Revised Statute 200.900. There is also a second statute, NRS 388.123, which deals with cyber bullying. It defines bullying slightly differently than 200.900. For instance, “which exposes a person one time or repeatedly” in 200.900 becomes “which exposes a person repeatedly and over time” in 388.122. The cyber bullying statute also defines that term:
“Cyber-bullying” means bullying through the use of electronic communication. The term includes the use of electronic communication to transmit or distribute a sexual image of a minor. As used in this section, “sexual image” has the meaning ascribed to it in NRS 200.737.