District super says bullying, when it happens, is addressed at BKW

Enterprise file photo — Tim Tulloch

Annette Landry, Berne-Knox-Westerlo’s elementary-school principal, says she interviewed student witnesses as well as watching surveillance video to determine that Richard Ganser did not touch any student but his own son when he came to the school on April 27.

BERNE — Two parents have given conflicting accounts of an interaction between one parent and an elementary school student. Matthew Warnken and his 10-year-old son, Cole, say that the father of a Berne-Knox-Westerlo classmate shook Cole and dragged another student to the principal’s office.

The father, Richard Ganser, responded at the May 7 school board meeting that he never touched any student, but said that Cole has bullied his son for five years.

Ganser went to the elementary school in Berne on the morning of April 27 after, he said, his son was hit on the head with a cellphone by another student a day earlier. Ganser admonished Cole before his son said it was another student who had hit him; Ganser then walked to the school principal’s office with that boy.

Neither the school principal, Annette Landry, nor the district superintendent, Timothy Mundell, would talk to The Enterprise about the incident earlier. On Friday, Landry did talk to The Enterprise.

The Enterprise viewed footage of the incident from a surveillance tape with Landry and Elementary School Dean of Students Jeff Vogel.

The footage shows around 30 students in the frame; Vogel says there were twice as many present in the hallway at that time. Ganser’s son is seen walking down the line of students waiting for breakfast, and Ganser is seen later walking down the hallway.

Ganser is seen speaking to a student and moving his hands and pointing, but is not seen touching or grabbing the student. Ganser’s son approaches him and speaks to him before Ganser and another student walk down the hallway.

Landry said she ran into that student and Ganser on her way to the main office. The student admitted to what he did and apologized. Landry said Ganser spoke to the student after Ganser apologized and said Ganser said “It’s OK, I’m not upset with you, I’m upset that the aid didn’t say anything.”

Ganser and his wife had told The Enterprise that, after their son had been hit with a cellphone by the other student, a school aid who witnessed the incident did not take any action.

Landry believes that what the aid observed wasn’t determined to be bullying because there wasn’t an intent to harm when the student hit Ganser’s son with the phone, and that they knew each other and were fooling around.

There are specific stipulations to when someone is bullying a student, she said, and it is not always understood what qualifies as bullying. Landry added that she hopes presentations may be made this fall to go over this with parents.

Superintendent Timothy Mundell wrote in a letter sent through the school’s notification system on May 10, the day an Enterprise story was published about Ganser’s statements at the school board meeting, that no evidence was found to support that a student was shaken and said the district considers their investigation on this closed.

“The proof is not there, that’s the truth,” said Warnken, Cole’s father, of the video. He told The Enterprise on Friday that he believes his son’s version of what happened, and said the shaking may not have been caught in the delays between the frames of the video; security cameras at the school capture an image every few seconds.

Warnken said further that Ganser’s description of Cole as a bully was itself an attack. Warnken acknowledged that there may have been acts interpreted as bullying by the Gansers that he and the school did not see as bullying, but Warnken said he knows only of Cole calling Ganser’s son a name several years ago.

Ganser had defended himself at the school board meeting, stating that he had never touched a child save his own. But he said he took issue with the district not addressing his child being bullied for the last five years.

“As the Superintendent of Schools, I reject that idea,” Mundell wrote. He added that the district maintains a web page on the Dignity for All Students Act, or DASA, which requires schools to report bullying to a database. Mundell wrote that the page also has information about how to address bullying, and went on to describe tools the district uses to combat bullying such as its peer mediation program, which has trained students to conduct mediation for student conflicts.

Ganser and his wife said that in years when BKW had reported no incidents of bullying to either of the state’s databases, their son had indeed been bullied.

Ganser also said that Mundell had told him “one-on-one” incidents of bullying don’t have to be reported to the state. BKW’s publicist, Benjamin Amey, had told The Enterprise that Mundell had told Ganser that an issue between two students is not automatically considered a bullying issue.

“In terms of reporting data to the State Education Department, the district has nothing to hide,” Mundell wrote in his letter on the school notification network. “We submit data that reflects the criteria outlined in the law. We are not concerned about how the data may positively or negatively reflect on the district. We just report the data.”

In his letter, Mundell states that administrators investigating alleged bullying must look for several main elements to determine if it is bullying: an imbalance of power, repetitive or potential for repetitive behavior, abusive behavior impacting a student at school, or targeting someone for being in a protected class such as a racial or religious minority.

“Given these criteria, rarely is there a material finding of bullying, especially in an elementary setting,” Mundell writes, adding that most incidents are conflicts between individuals during what he describes as “an awkward time for youngsters.”

Since the Dignity for All Students Act reporting became required, for the 2013-14 school year, BKW has reported zero incidents at its elementary school for each of those years with one exception — three incidents of discrimination or harassment were reported for the 2014-15 school year.

And, although BKW reported zero incidents to DASA for the elementary school in 2015-16, it reported five assaults, three bullying incidents, and two weapons possessions at the elementary school that same year under the state’s Violent And Disruptive Incident Reporting system, known as VADIR.

Mundell wrote that the incident on Thursday, April 26, between Ganser’s son and the student who hit him had not been reported to the administration by the students or the parent but was addressed and resolved by Landry on Friday. He wrote that Landry also addressed Ganser coming to the school, as Mundell said he had bypassed the visitor procedures to go to the breakfast line.

“The two students and the parents were satisfied with the outcome of the hitting issue,” he wrote.

Landry told The Enterprise this Friday that she spoke to the both Ganser’s son and the student who hit him, but not Cole, because she did not believe that he was involved. She said she was contacted by Cole’s mother about him being shaken later that day.

Landry said that her secretary never saw Cole coming to the office. Cole had told The Enterprise that he went to her office on Friday but Landry was away. Landry said Cole’s mother called and came in later that same day and reviewed the footage seven or eight times.

In order to determine what happened, Landry said she spoke to a handful of students from different grades who were present for the run-in who were not connected to either Ganser’s son or Cole and who did not have a disciplinary record. She said asking only a few students rather than all those who were present kept the situation from blowing out of proportion.

Warnken also said he was concerned about the number of parents who come in and out of the school to visit their children. Ganser’s wife had also said she has visited the school during the day and also has seen other parents there.

Outside of special events, the parents who do come into the school are mostly parents of children in the pre-kindergarten program, said Landry, which she says falls under regulations outside of the district because it is through the federal program Head Start. Vogel added that parents who come into the school wear identification badges, which they are given when they sign in.

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