When no one listens

Three parents took their bullied students out of Sacramento City Unified schools, where resources to protect them are limited

Noah Buchanan, the parent of a special-needs student who was bullied, stands in front of the Sacramento City Unified School District headquarters.

Noah Buchanan, the parent of a special-needs student who was bullied, stands in front of the Sacramento City Unified School District headquarters.

Photo by Scott Thomas Anderson

Researchers are learning more about the link between school bullying and suicide, a grim intersection between distinct but sometimes connected public health issues.

The Sacramento region had its own wake-up call in 2014, when a 12-year-old Folsom Middle School student, Ronin Shimizu, took his life after relentless bullying for his perceived gender identification. The Folsom Cordova Unified School District later settled a lawsuit with the child’s family for $1 million and launched a multilayered anti-bullying campaign.

Sacramento City Unified School District—one of the largest districts in the region—has its own program to prevent students from being targeted. But some local families claim the efforts are not enough, after their own children were bullied off their campuses for their sexual orientation or developmental conditions.

For these parents, Shimizu’s story is particularly haunting. He was diagnosed with obsessive compulsive disorder, attention deficit disorder and anxiety as other students were using hurtful, anti-gay slurs to claw at his emotional state. That pressure led to a tragedy.

Can others be avoided?

As Sac Unified lurches toward its third year of a budget crisis that could mean a state takeover, the prospect of expanding anti-bullying efforts is nowhere in sight.

There came a point when Angie Sutherland could no longer take what her daughter was going through. All through fifth and sixth grades, her daughter was bullied at Hollywood Park Elementary School for her autism, Sutherland says. She says it started in 2017 and included students repeatedly shaming her child about her appearance, as well as calling her the r-word. One boy reportedly even taunted, “I wish you’d die in a house fire.”

Sutherland says the harassment caused her daughter, now 11, to have nightmares and develop an eating disorder and extremely low self-esteem. Then she was driven to self-harm.

“She had six hospitalizations over two years,” Sutherland recalled.

Sutherland says that school staff at Hollywood Park made little effort to investigate or stop the bullying. Worried for her daughter’s welfare, Sutherland eventually pulled her out the district in May 2017. She’s now attending an out-of-state residential school centered on teaching students suffering from trauma. She’s slowly showing signs of recovery, her mother says.

Sacramento City Unified spokesman Alex Barrios said it is policy for the schools to refer inquiries to the district office, but that he couldn’t comment on specific bullying reports due to student privacy regulations. Generally speaking, he said, if parents believe school employees are not handling bullying issues appropriately, they should report it to the district’s constituent services office.

Angel Garcia is another parent of an autistic student who no longer attends a Sac Unified school. She says her son went through a hellish ordeal while in seventh grade at California Middle School. He had come out as gay that year, and between that and his developmental condition, the bullying was nonstop, Garcia says. She says her son endured verbal abuse, was punched and, at one point, extorted for money. The most heartbreaking moment for Garcia was when her son admitted he wasn’t eating at school anymore because he didn’t want to be confronted in the cafeteria. She says that even though campus staff discovered her son hiding under a staircase one time, they didn’t take the situation seriously.

“They said that [the bullying] had to be his perception from his autism,” Garcia remembered. “These were physical attacks—that’s not his perception.”

When Garcia’s son hurt himself, she pulled him out of the district and put him in private school. She says the bullying ended overnight.

“A lot of kids with disabilities can’t control their tics and mannerisms, and they’re targeted within a culture that has no protection for them,” Garcia said. “There was no one looking out for my son, and it turned him into a different person who I barely recognized.”

Noah Buchanan says he was also recently compelled to pull his son from an SCUSD school. Buchanan’s son, who is diagnosed with severe attention deficit disorder, was in fifth grade last year at Matsuyama Elementary School when problems started. Buchanan says students were subjecting his son to anti-gay insults and name-calling due to his gender identification. That included, Buchanan says, being called a gay slur and “a disease.” At one point, one student allegedly told Buchanan’s son he needed to die.

“Once, when I told him he had to go to school, he said, ’I don’t feel safe—I’m scared,’” Buchanan recalled.

Buchanan provided SN&R with a series of emails between himself and staff at Matsuyama that indicate officials investigated the reported bullying but ultimately found it unsubstantiated. From Buchanan’s standpoint, that’s part of the problem. He believes school employees pick and choose which students they believe, and kids with disabilities are at a disadvantage.

Once Buchanan’s son began engaging in self-harm, he again approached the district for help. He says it offered to put his son in a special school for at-risk students experiencing emotional disturbance. That has been a widespread practice for the district, and one that came under fire in 2017 in an independent audit of its special education program.

“He’s a smart kid, and I feel that segregating him and putting him in that kind of class is putting a label on him,” Buchanan said. “And that’s going to carry on for him. And, regardless, people are going to find out about it. I feel like the bullying will escalate.”

This year, Buchanan put his son in a St. Hope charter school and says his son’s overall experience has dramatically improved.

Reports of bullying do seem to be increasing.

There are roughly 47,900 students in Sac Unified. In the 2017-18 school year, 171 cases of suspected bullying were reported to the district. Last school year, 276 were reported.

A 2014 survey by the Journal of Adolescent Health found that 35% of American students between the ages of 12 and 18 reported being bullied on campus, while15% said they were the victim of cyber-bullying.

Sacramento City Unified has had a bullying intervention policy since 2011 and is currently one of the few districts in California to have a full-time bullying prevention specialist—a licensed marriage and family therapist named Jessica Wharton.

Wharton trains campus administrators to recognize and respond to bullying. She also intervenes directly in some cases, mediating conflicts between students. Last year, Wharton held 58 mediations, provided 422 consultations with parents and school staff and trained 737 employees.

But Wharton is spread thin. She’s a one-woman show for all of the district’s 75 schools. While her salary is paid from the district’s general fund, the outreach, awareness or education initiatives rely on grants. At a district board meeting last November where her program’s budget was discussed, Wharton told trustees it’s sometimes difficult for her to carry out all of her different jobs, especially training.

“Where we fall into a quandary sometimes is that we have nine months of school,” Wharton said. “When you have a lot of complicated things that need to be done, sometimes we don’t have enough professional development hours that are available.”

Translation: Not all SCUSD employees are getting the anti-bullying training within the time frame the district’s policy mandates.

When Wharton issued that warning, the district was already mired in a financial crisis. The problem has only gotten worse, as the district is at a contract impasse with the Sacramento City Teachers Association and has a multimillion-dollar structural deficit that could trigger a state takeover. As a result, there hasn’t been any public discussion of expanding the bullying intervention program, nor hiring a second prevention specialist.

“I think it’s really unfortunate we have to hope for additional grant funding to do restorative practices, trauma-informed practices and things that we know are vital to a student’s ability to show up and learn,” board president Jessie Ryan said at the November meeting.

Victoria Flores, the district’s director of Student Support and Health Services who oversees the bullying intervention program, acknowledges the challenges that she and Wharton face are significant.

“We do have to make sure we’re being inclusive and focusing on those protected classes,” Flores told SN&R this month. “Every year, as we learn more and deal with new situations, we’re constantly looking at best practices and trying to get that into the training. … I always feel hopeful about it.”

But it has been months since the district and union officials met for contract negotiations, and that’s making parents like Garcia and Sutherland less hopeful. And they believe that the teachers’ union insistence on a two-decade-old policy that allows teachers to choose whether or not disabled students are placed in their classrooms—a contract stipulation called Appendix D—shows the union’s indifference to kids with special needs. These parent advocates also believe that move contributed to a broader culture of exclusion, one that only worsens bullying.

David Fisher, a spokesman for the SCTA, disagreed with that interpretation of Appendix D, saying it was intended as a framework for giving teachers more resources for inclusive practices. He said the union is not aware of any students being denied services because of it. Fisher added that SCTA recently made what it argues is revenue-neutral proposal in budget negotiations to increase the ratio of school counselors and psychologists to help with issues like bullying, which the district has so far declined.

“Improving school climate has been a big priority for us,” Fisher said.

Garcia is quick to point out that the lack of resources to expand anti-bullying measures is an untold casualty of the budget saga—and forced her family to turn to a costly private school, an option many parents don’t have.

“There have been times in my life when I couldn’t have afforded that,” Garcia said. “If someone’s child is going through this, and they don’t have hundreds of extra dollars a month, what are they supposed to do?”