If you are lucky enough to fit in, then you don’t have to worry about being bullied, said a former Greendale High School student.
High school can be rough. Not everyone is lucky.
A written bomb threat was found in a boys bathroom three days prior to the Greendale homecoming dance. It read "3 DAYS TILL BOOM JK OR AM I?". Five days later police arrested Nicholas S. Olson, 17, saying he was responsible.
Police originally recommended a felony charge against Olson, but prosecutors decided on a misdemeanor for Olson because of reports of prolonged bullying by his peers, including nominating him for homecoming court as a prank. The Greendale School District said they had nothing to do with the lesser charge, though the criminal complaint says the assistant district attorney talked with a representative of the district who said they agreed with that decision.
As soon as people in Greendale realized who the suspect was, the discussion on bullying began. People have been talking in the community and online, as in the dozens of comments posted on Patch stories about the bomb threat, about whether Greendale Schools have a bullying problem.
“Bullying is a problem everywhere,” said Wendy Sterner. She said her son was bullied all through middle school and high school in Greendale. “It is stronger here than in some other places. There’s bullying and there’s extreme cases like my son’s and Nick’s.”
Sterner says she was not surprised when she heard about Olson “snapping.” Even though she did not know Olson’s parents she called them.
“My biggest reason for calling was to say you’re not alone,” Sterner said. “Tell Nick to hang in there. Things will be improved…. I kept telling my son to hang in there. High school will be over."
Sterner said bullying changed her son’s life. He was called names, physically hurt and at times even got in trouble.
“He became a completely different person,” she said. “As time goes by I hope he’ll heal from it. They turn on whoever is weak and then it starts spreading.”
Her son is now in college and is doing much better with a social circle of friends.
Bullying can start at any time. Greendale High School 2012 graduate Andy Budziszek wrote to Patch in an email exchange, for Olson, it may have started freshman year of high school, when someone decided to make him a target.
“If someone, ONE PERSON, decides to pick on you, that can infect you with the virus all the way throughout high school,” Budziszek wrote. “This is what happened to Nick. His freshman year, one kid, or a small group of kids that were influential to a larger body started picking on him and that is what started his never-ending bullying throughout high school.”
Budziszek explained how difficult it is to come back from being the bullied kid.
"In the eyes of an unpopular kid, you feel hopeless," Budziszek wrote. "You really do. You can't try to be cool because when you do try, the popular kids/bullies beat you back down into the ground by starting rumors and talking to their friends about how 'hard you're trying' to be cool."
Olson’s cousin Jesse Johnston, who went to St. Alphonsus School with Olson, said his cousin had been bullied all his life and it kept getting worse.
“People calling him fat (and touching him inappropriately)," Johnston said. “People will be bullies and there's no other way to say it.”
The prank nomination to the Homecoming Court might have been the last straw for Olson.
Greendale High School Principal Steve Lodes said that the guidance counselor had noticed a weird number of votes for Olson when she was doing the tally. She approached administration about it and they informed Olson who declined the nomination. The criminal complaint states that Olson also received a large number of votes in last year’s prom court but Lodes said he was not.
Lack of bully reporting
Students, parents and administrators all agree that there is lack of reporting bullying instances in fear of retaliation from the bully, humiliation or getting in trouble.
Budziszek said kids could be teased till they snap and throw the first punch.
Sterner said that's what happened to her son. She said another student started a fight with him, and he was arrested even though he threw his hands in the air so he wouldn't get in trouble for fighting.
“For the kids being bullied, it feels like you're alone in school,” Budziszek said . “You have no choice but to be bullied, because if you react to the bullying, you will get yourself in trouble and the bullies will just sit back and laugh at you while you're sitting in a detention room during your suspension.”
In middle school Sterner’s son stood up to his bully and refused to sit next to him on the bus. She said the bully choked her son so badly he came home with marks on his neck.
Lodes said they don't have many reports of bullying, and that he thinks students often aren't telling adults about what is going on.
Greendale School District officials said they and the police liason had no prior knowledge about Olson being bullied before the homecoming court prank.
“We could improve by putting more processes in place where students can report in an easier way,” Lodes said. “That is something positive that could spin off that we have been thinking about surrounding this issue. You can’t assume that every student has the ability to walk up to an administrator and tell them something. We can only deal with what we know.”
The district's bullying policy states reports of bullying may be made verbally or in writing and may be made confidentially.
On Friday a letter went out to the community from Superintendent John Tharp and School Board President Joe Crapitto saying the district would not tolerate harassment, intimidation or other actions that lessen the student experience.
The district plans to set up community task force "to not just identify what may be happening in the community, but help us to build upon the existing programs and resources that are helping our young people to gain those skills that lead to respect, support, and strong character.”
Lodes said he plans to look into how to provide teachers, administrators and himself with any additional skills and training so when they see something they are able to provide the most appropriate reaction.
“We can start looking at how we can be a better school by providing students with the ability to have more voice if they need help or know somebody that needs help,” Lodes said.
Walking around the middle school it’s how hard to miss the bullying awareness posters throughout the hall. This is part of an 8th grade Service Art Club project.
Greendale Middle School Principal John Weiss believes that bullying is part of a larger spectrum and continuum.
“Our big effort at the middle school is our PRIDE program,” Weiss said. “All of that plays a huge role in making those connections, forming relationships with those kids and having opportunities for our kids to stand up as leaders.”
Weiss said bullying can be dealt with in many different ways and depending on the student and their history.
Both Sterner and Budziszek said students take the anti-bullying initiatives as a joke.
Sterner says her son’s experience was horrible but believes that the Greendale School District cares and is really trying.
“I don’t think there is anywhere in the nation that has found a really great solution to this,” she said. “I believe Greendale really does care. I just don’t think they know what to do. If they do know what to do it would require additional personal at a time of huge budget cuts.”
Budziszek feels that staff doesn’t make enough efforts to address bullying.
“It infuriates me just thinking about all of the times I've watched kids go talk to administration about bullying and administration pretty much blew them off by saying ‘Ignore it’ or ‘I'll look into it’ or ‘I'll watch for it next time’. Nothing is ever done.”
But everyone agrees there needs to be a solution where bullied kids can easily come forward.
“This type of thing is going to continue to happen, possibly worse, when you have teenagers, especially boys, because they keep so much inside if we don’t find someway to help them,” Sterner said.