Wolf Branch parents say they're fed up with racial bullying; district responds

News-DemocratOctober 25, 2013 

Parents Dwayne and Premissa Acoff are outraged their 13-year-old son has been the target of racial slurs, two physical altercations and cyber bullying at Wolf Branch Middle School in Swansea for the last year and a half.

The Acoffs say the district isn't doing enough to combat the bullying inflicted on their son, eighth-grader Dwayne Acoff II, 13, who is black, by five different students, who are not black.

"They're violating my son's civil rights and his educational rights to get a good education in a safe and healthy environment," she said of school officials.

Wolf Branch School District 113 Superintendent Scott Harres said district officials are doing everything in their power to address the issue. The district takes every report of any kind of harassment "very seriously," according to Harres.

"As soon as that report comes in, it's immediately investigated," he said. "If it's found to be true, we respond according to what's laid out in our handbook and policies. Student privacy laws prohibit the discussion of issues involving specific students."

Wolf Branch Middle School Principal Jeff Burkett addressed bullying in a letter electronically sent to parents Thursday that stated the school experienced three separate incidents of racial slurs within the past four weeks.

"We cannot accept racial harassment or harassment of any form at Wolf Branch," Burkett said in the letter, "and we vow to do our best to ensure that no student is harmed by insensitive comments or actions."

Seventy-three percent of students at Wolf Branch Middle School are white, according to the 2012 Illinois School Report Card, and 14.5 percent of students are black.

Since the Acoff family voiced their concerns, Harres said Burkett has organized a cultural diversity roundtable meeting with parents. Burkett is working with the Center for Racial Harmony in Belleville and its President Jerril Jones, who resides in District 113.

"Wolf Branch has taken positive steps to rectify the situation," said Jones, who attended the diversity meeting.

Jones said Racial Harmony is available to help organizations like school districts with remediation services as well as guest speakers. He also suggested the school put on a play to address the situation they are having at Wolf Branch.

The purpose of the diversity meetings, Harres explained, is to "talk about how we can make sure the well being of every single kid is being addressed."

"They have been aware that they've had a racial problem," Dwayne Acoff said of Wolf Branch officials. "The problem is they haven't done anything to correct the problem."

Premissa Acoff spoke publicly to District 113 school board members regarding her son's bullying at Tuesday night's meeting. Both Premissa and Dwayne Acoff would like the district to strengthen its policies against bullying of all kinds and establish a zero-tolerance policy and immediately expel students who bully others.

"Their policy isn't strong enough. We're not going to stop. We're going to pursue this as far as we have to go until they change their policy," Dwayne Acoff said. "Children have a right to an educational environment where they can learn without worrying about extra pressures. I want this to stop happening for everyone."

The Acoffs have a daughter who is in the third-grade at Wolf Branch Elementary School and also have a 2-year-old son.

What's happening to his son is not an isolated incident, according to Dwayne Acoff. "They have a severe cultural problem in the district," he said.

Premissa Acoff said the physical incidents included her son's head being slammed against a locker last school year and him being hit repeatedly by a fellow student this school year.

The Acoffs said the bullying has negatively impacted their son, who has become withdrawn. His mother said "Little Dwayne" doesn't want to socialize with his friends, participate in school activities or even go to school some days.

"It's been making me really upset. I'm upset the school is not really doing anything about it," said the student, Dwayne Acoff II. "A lot of my friends ignore the problem, it seems they really don't care any more."

Premissa Acoff said she plans to picket at Wolf Branch Middle School from 7:30 a.m. to 8:30 a.m. Monday to let other parents know about what's going on at the school.

To address cyber bullying against their son occurring outside of school via cellphone text messages, the Acoffs filed a report with the Swansea Police Department last month.

Swansea Deputy Police Chief Craig Coughlin confirmed a police report was filed Sept. 25 and said it's currently under review by the St. Clair County State's Attorney Office.

"This is just unacceptable," Premissa Acoff said. "Today it's my son, but tomorrow it can be your son."

Contact reporter Jamie Forsythe at 239-2562 or jforsythe1@bnd.com.