Feds investigate bullying complaint in Swansea school district

News-DemocratMarch 6, 2014 

The U.S. Department of Education Office for Civil Rights is investigating allegations of racially motivated bullying at Wolf Branch Middle School in Swansea.

Wolf Branch School District 113 Superintendent Scott Harres confirmed parent Premissa Acoff filed a discrimination complaint against the district in the fall and the Office for Civil Rights is investigating.

He said the district received Acoff's complaint, responded to it and had a telephone interview with the Office for Civil Rights.

"Now, it's sitting in their hands," Harres said. "We are waiting on them to determine how they view the complaint and how they view our response to it."

U.S. Department of Education spokesman Jim Bradshaw said the Office for Civil Rights is investigating a complaint against District 113, which "alleges the district discriminated on the basis of race when it had notice of a racially hostile environment but failed to respond appropriately." He declined further comment.

Premissa Acoff and her husband Dwayne Acoff publicly spoke out against the district in October after they became fed up with the bullying of their son, Dwayne Acoff II. The Acoffs said their son, who is black, was the target of racial slurs, two physical altercations and cyber bullying by white classmates at Wolf Branch Middle School.

"As soon as it was brought to our attention, we investigated and dealt with it according to our policies," Harres said. "We have made OCR aware of the fact that we have also taken all these other steps to minimize as much as possible these things occurring -- any type of harassment or bullying."

Premissa Acoff said bullies have stopped targeting her son for the most part. "Now they kind of leave him alone," she said. "He hasn't had any more instances."

However, Premissa Acoff said bullying is still happening at the school against other students. "There's a lot of things still going on there," she said. "It's always something."

Parent Kimberly Fowler of Swansea concurs. She said bullying remains an issue at Wolf Branch Middle School. "This school seems to have the most problems at this time," she said.

Fowler's 11-year-old son Kobie, a sixth-grader, is being bullied because of his weight, according to his mother.

"He gained so much weight in such a small amount of time," Fowler said as her son just started at Wolf Branch the beginning of this school year. "It must be really affecting what's going on."

Fowler said Kobie came home from school on a recent afternoon threw his books down in the living room and locked himself in the bathroom. She said she's worried her son is going to "flunk out of the sixth-grade."

Fowler said bullying is present at the school among all races and genders as her son is white and is being harassed by classmates of the same race.

Parent Julie Langford of Swansea, whose daughter was bullied for years at Wolf Branch Elementary, said, "I feel like there's hope, but we need to move it along faster to get the help in the school. I know the school is trying to implement some programs. I just don't feel like they are moving fast enough."

Anti-bullying programs set up

To combat bullying, Harres said the district has implemented several new programs including a cultural diversity committee in cooperation with the Center for Racial Harmony in Belleville, which is overseen by middle school Principal Jeff Burkett.

"They are meeting on a regular basis and have come up with quite a few things the district is doing," Harres said, like using advisory time with students to talk about bullying as well as character education.

Burkett also is working with the Anti-Defamation League, a national organization with an office in St. Louis, to bring the World of Difference initiative to Wolf Branch Middle School.

"We choose the World of Difference program because it can grow and it's one that best fits our needs," Burkett said.

The program addresses a variety of topics including bullying and cyber bullying.

Tabari Coleman, education project director at the Anti-Defamation League in St. Louis, said the league recently facilitated a professional development training for the middle school's diversity committee.

"We have some really good resources that the Anti-Defamation League is providing to us. They are giving us resources to help us not only react appropriately but really be proactive," Harres said. "They have been extremely accommodating to allow us to fit into a lot of the things they have to offer."

Wolf Branch Middle School recently signed up to become a No Place For Hate school as part of a national campaign aimed at promoting harmony and respect for differences.

As part of the No Place For Hate initiative, Coleman said Wolf Branch Middle School must participate in three or more school-wide activities that celebrate diversity.

With the Anti-Defamation League's help, Burkett has formed a leadership group comprised of 31 fifth-, sixth-, seventh- and eighth-graders.

"We want them to be the leaders of the school and help demonstrate the great qualities that could be looked upon as modeling not just appropriate behavior, but the behavior that everyone else wants to emulate," Harres said.

Members of the leadership group will take a field trip in April to the St. Louis Art Museum to learn about Concepts of Beauty and Bias, a collaboration between the Anti-Defamation League and the museum.

"We use art as a way of engaging students in conversations about bias and differences," Coleman explained.

The district is also emphasizing good communication between teachers and students, according to Harres. "We continue to stress to the teachers and to the students that they need to be vigilant, proactive and good listeners to pick up on any vibes that we may not be aware of so we can head things off before they do become an issue," he said.

The entire staff at Wolf Branch District 113 will participate in a full-day workshop this June led by the Anti-Defamation League.

Harres described bullying as an "unfortunate issue at every school. Any time anything is brought to our attention we deal with it immediately and do everything we can to minimize that ever occurring again," he said. "We are trying to meet it head-on and do everything we can so we can minimize this as much as possible."

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

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