Two mothers who removed their daughters from BKW say the school should do more to prevent bullying

— Photo from Christy Lee Celentano

A mother says that her daughter, Hailey Wisler, had to be removed from Berne-Knox-Westerlo Secondary School after bullying from other students caused her grades to fail and to lose weight.

BERNE — As Berne-Knox-Westerlo community members discuss the district’s code of conduct, including disciplinary action and bullying, one mother claims that her child was bullied at BKW and didn’t receive help from the school. The secondary school principal denies these allegations.

Christy Lee Celentano believes that many other students are going through similar experiences as her 14-year-old daughter, Hailey Wisler. Celentano herself grew up attending a large school in California and said she had not been aware of the effects of bullying in a small school. She said she withdrew her daughter from BKW, to school her at home, because Hailey became depressed and her weight fell dramatically due to the bullying.

Allegations of bullying were made several months ago when other BKW parents said their child was picked on with no response from the school, leading to the father entering the elementary school and scolding the child he believed to be the bully. The mother then formed a Facebook group on which parents have shared stories of bullying at the school.

Reports of lack of response from the district had been heard before. In 2016, a 12-year-old, Mackenzie Dunnells, was schooled at home after she tried to kill herself, which she and her parents attributed to suffering physical, emotional, and verbal abuse from classmates that BKW staff has done little or nothing to intervene in despite frequent requests from her parents, they said.

Berne-Knox-Westerlo Superintendent Timothy Mundell, who defended BKW and said the district does respond to bullying, welcomed community members to participate in reviewing the district’s code of conduct, which is done yearly.

Secondary School Principal Mark Pitterson told The Enterprise that Hailey has not been enrolled in the school district since last fall. He said that there has been no evidence of Hailey being bullied; the allegations, he said, were investigated and nothing was found to corroborate them. The investigation involved interviewing other individuals and reviewing footage from video cameras in the school, he said.

Hailey told The Enterprise that, since the middle of eighth grade, she had been afraid to go to school, and felt that she had no friends to turn to in the class of around 50 students.

Her grades became worse, said her mother, and she began losing weight. Teachers offered help, but things still grew worse, said Celentano.

“She had absolutely no friends,” her mother said.

Hailey, who is 5 feet, 5 inches tall, was down to 89 pounds by the time she was pulled out of school, said Celentano. Her body mass index would have been about 14.8, a dangerously low BMI.

“She was just bones,” Celentano said.

Celentano said that her daughter would tell her that she forgot to eat during the day. Celentano tried to ameliorate this with high-protein smoothies and even brought in Hailey’s favorite junk food, but it didn’t work.

One of Hailey’s tormentors, she and her mother said, was Mackenzie Dunnells, who had herself been bullied and is in the same grade as Hailey.

Dr. Tracy Vaillancourt, a Canada Research chair in Children’s Mental Health and Violence Prevention at the University of Ottawa, has studied a group of peers for over a decade in how they interact. One conclusion from the research so far is that victims of bullies are likely to become bullies themselves.

“There’s a certain percentage of those who slip over,” she said, explaining that children may see it as a way to restore the power imbalance imposed by bullying.

“It doesn’t really matter what type of bullying,” she said. Rather, she said, it’s the frequency of being bullied.

Now, Celentano believes her daughter is getting better. She is seeing a doctor and a therapist, she said. She has gained about 20 pounds, leaving her just below a healthy weight. But Celentano is concerned about her daughter falling behind in school, and hopes to have her go back to BKW this fall.

She said that the school has recently contacted her about her daughter returning to BKW, but that she has struggled communicating with the district in order to set up tutoring for her daughter. She hopes that this will begin within a week in order for her daughter to be ready to return to school.

“I want her in school,” she said.

 

Enterprise file photo — Melissa Hale-Spencer
Mackenzie Dunnells, at 12, shows off a picture she took of her guinea pig nestling with her dog. She said at the time that she wanted to be a veterinarian.

 

Paula Dunnells, Mackenzie’s mother, said she made sure that her daughter has had no contact with Hailey since 2016 — halfway through seventh grade — and that Mackenzie was also pulled out of BKW in October 2017 due to the school not giving her the help she needed, Dunnells said. Dunnells said her daughter now attends a school in Colonie where she benefits from significantly smaller class sizes and the ability to take breaks every so often.

Dunnells said she often accompanied her daughter places to ensure there were no altercations, has kept Mackenzie off social media, and has blocked Celentano on her phone.

She agreed with Celentano, though, that the school needs to do more to address bullying.

“I’ve seen kids hit, kick, punched, and call other kids names,” Dunnells said.

“There is some truth to what she’s saying,” said Dunnells. “Hailey is a quiet girl at some points and at other points [she’ll] be right in the mess of things.”

Dunnells said that Hailey had ended up being bullied by the same group of girls she had befriended and who had bullied Mackenzie.

“You’re either ‘in’ or hated in the school district,” she said.

“The girls did fight back and forth; I’m not saying Hailey’s innocent,” said Celentano.

But she believes that her daughter did not receive attention from the school when she was involved in an altercation or being picked on. She said she and her husband would ask the school about her daughter almost weekly by the time Hailey was in eighth grade, but did not get a response. She said that Pitterson has been very caring and “a super good person,” but hasn’t looked into Hailey’s background.

“He would never look into the history of what’s going on,” she said of the years of bullying.

Celentano says she currently works as a teacher’s aid for the Guilderland school district.

“I know the protocol for things like this,” she said.

She said she has taken classes through the Guilderland school district in order to be certified in working with students with attention-deficit disorder and attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder, as well as with high-functioning autism. While she wouldn’t be the one dealing with it, she said she imagines Guilderland’s administration would address a situation where a student appeared isolated.

Years of worry

Celentano said that she was first informed by her daughter that she was being picked on when Hailey was in sixth grade, but didn’t notice anything out of the ordinary. Her daughter felt like an outcast, she said, and things escalated in seventh grade when she received threatening text messages, said Celentano.

Celentano said that her daughter was accused of lying about the incidents but believes that this is not the case.

“I didn’t even know what to say to them at that point,” Celentano said, of being told her daughter was lying.

“Her sadness and things occurring were very real,” she added.

Celentano said that the school wanted video evidence of harassment, but that there were no cameras in the areas where the bullying occurred.

“If a student alleges that something happened in a classroom, we find out who was in the classroom,” Pitterson said, of the statement that altercations in classrooms have no video evidence.

Pitterson noted that some of the allegations are from before he came to work for the district two years ago. He said he couldn’t comment on specifics of an investigation, but that the district reviews all evidence within the confines of the law. He noted that disputes over text messages are complex and may involve the complainant as the one who sent the initial message.

Hailey told The Enterprise that her being picked on started in fourth grade with a girl who “was like my best friend,” Mackenzie Dunnells.

Paula Dunnells said that the altercations between Mackenzie and Hailey go back to third grade.

“Hailey Wisler was the main bullier of my daughter, and I have records of it,” Dunnells said.

Dunnells agreed that Hailey and her daughter had originally been friends, but that Hailey had joined a group of girls that ganged up on Mackenzie. She said that Celentano had dismissed this as “girls being girls.”

During sixth grade, one of her teachers noticed Hailey was crying in class, she said, and had her talk to the principal, Hailey said. Hailey said her classes were switched and her locker was changed that year.

Celentano said that perpetrators of harassment are supposed to be moved from the classroom rather than the victims.

Pitterson said the school’s policy is to have students who appear to be in distress brought to the school’s guidance counselor, social worker, clinician, dean of students, or himself by either a staff member or a student instructed by a staff member if they are unable to leave.

He said there is no state policy, as Celentano had thought, that the offender in an altercation be the one who is removed, though he said that that makes the most sense when handling such an altercation. A statement from the New York State Department of Education confirmed that these policies are set at a local level.

In 2015, a 12-year-old BKW student who was bullied with racial slurs was moved to a different class.

Dunnells said she had written to the guidance office toward the end of sixth grade for her daughter to not be in the same classes as Hailey because “the bullying got so bad.” Dunnells said she made sure she did this again for the next few years that Mackenzie attended BKW.

Hailey said that cameras didn’t catch her getting pushed down the stairs and she wasn’t hurt, so there was no evidence. She had her classes switched again in the middle of that year, which was more difficult in seventh grade than when it happened in sixth grade because of the more varying classes, she said.

Her mother said that in seventh grade Hailey and other girls had five or six sessions of counseling but that her daughter didn’t find that it helped, in part because she felt it hadn’t resolved things with the others.

“I don’t think I knew what bullying was until the eighth grade,” said Hailey.

In eighth grade, Hailey said, she spent her lunch periods with a teacher’s aid in a classroom, and wanted to spend her ninth-grade lunch periods in a classroom as well. A few days into ninth grade, she was told not to take her lunches in a classroom and was brought to the cafeteria, where she said she sat at a table alone.

At home

Celentano felt that the only option after the first few weeks of ninth grade was to pull her daughter out of school. She enrolled her in an online school — James Madison, a private school run through the for-profit institution Ashworth College — and paid for it out-of-pocket in monthly installments.

“Every child in America is promised a safe, free education, and my child doesn’t have that,” Celentano said.

Hailey has spent her past school year at home alone, as both her parents work and her older siblings have since left home; her mother said she will come home to check on her in the middle of the day. Hailey said it had been a lonely year.

Celentano said her daughter has been evaluated and determined to be clinically depressed due to her experiences at the school, according to Hailey’s doctor.

In the process of removing her daughter from BKW, Celentano said that the school called child protective services to investigate if Celentano was being negligent.

Pitterson said that he could not comment on whether CPS had been involved with an individual at the school, but said that the district is obligated by law to report educational neglect. Determining what is neglect depends on the situation, he said; New York State allows schools to make their own policies on what are excused or unexcused absences and what is an excessive number of days absent.

“We always try to work with the parents first, multiple times,” said Pitterson.

According to the New York State Department of Education, educational neglect is considered to be a parent’s failure to have their child attend school for “impermissible reasons” that causes  “adverse affect on the child’s educational progress or imminent danger of such an adverse affect.”

The grounds to report on educational neglect, according to state guidelines, include excessive absences (whether excused or unexcused) — what counts as excessive is to be determined by the district’s policy and can vary — reasonable cause to believe the parent is aware or should be aware of the absences and is contributing to or failing to address it, and reasonable cause to suggest the child has been educational impaired or is at risk of it.

District policies should specify that the policy is meant to serve as guidance in reporting and shouldn’t stop a report from being made if it does not meet such guidelines, according to the department of education.

Code of conduct

Dress codes, discipline, and other topics were on the table during two committee meetings — one at the elementary school on July 20 and the other at the secondary school on July 30 — held to discuss Berne-Knox-Westerlo’s code of conduct.

Community members with backgrounds ranging from teachers and staff at the school, school board members, and a student participated along with other community members.

Elementary School Principal Annette Landry had chosen three other code-of-conduct handbooks from other schools:

— The Burnt Hills School District, which has a one-to-one technology initiative, Landry said, meaning that students each have a device like a laptop to use for learning;

— The Guilderland School District, which has a separate code of conduct for its elementary schools; and

— The Voorheesville School District, which was chosen in part because its code emphasizes the responsibility of the student and describes specific disciplinary actions, Landry said.

At BKW’s elementary school, while the code of conduct is the same as the one given to secondary school students, the elementary student handbook is placed at the front of the student’s planner and is laid out in a more simplified manner.

Pitterson had committee members review both Voorheesville’s and Guilderland’s code-of-conduct handbooks, as well as a “cheat sheet” of suggestions he had compiled from both.

Both groups reviewing the code discussed in depth students’ dress code, including suggestions of allowing (or at least not stipulating the ban of) “spaghetti straps” and colored hair, as well as removing a ban on hats, which are already permitted by staff at the secondary school. The meeting at the secondary school included a debate on whether flip-flop sandals would be a liability and a safety hazard or if it should be up to students and parents to decide.

At the elementary school meeting, it was suggested a teacher might discuss with a student a dress-code violation, and a discussion followed on how a teacher might be able to do that without causing discomfort. Landry shared an anecdote about a student who had been wearing very short shorts, but it was understood that the student had likely gone through a growth spurt and hadn’t gotten new ones.

Disciplinary actions were also discussed at length at both meetings. At the elementary school meeting, Voorheesville’s emphasis on the responsibility of students and parents as well as the school was noted by committee members.

“It really establishes that sense of community,” said Carey Raymond, of recognizing student conduct as a joint responsibility. Raymond is a special-education teacher at the elementary school.

It was also suggested that mention be made of the school’s methods of restorative justice like peer mediation in the student handbook, as well as who parents should contact if they are concerned their child is being picked on.

At the secondary-school meeting, the group discussed how disciplining students such as with detention could be limited because currently, detention can be assigned only once a week.

Pitterson said that the code of conduct should use “progressive discipline,” as noted in Voorheesville’s code, which states that disciplinary action will depend on the context of the student and situation. The principal said that parents should be informed of this so that they understand why discipline may vary depending on factors like a student’s grade of if they are repeat offenders.

School board member Helen Lounsbury, who attended both meetings, asked Pitterson about reports that parents who call about bullying in the school are not getting called back, which Pitterson said was not true. Thomas Galvin, the school’s dean of students and athletic coordinator, said later that the school investigates any allegations, but cannot go on allegations alone if there are no corroborating statements from witnesses.

“But at least there’s a follow-up?” asked Lounsbury. Galvin said there is.

Randy Bashwinger, Berne’s highway superintendent and a newly elected school board member, attended the secondary-school meeting and noted that, if all allegations are documented, false claims should be easier to detect.

The committee at the secondary school also discussed defining bullying for students and parents and possibly holding a school assembly so students understand what bullying is.

Pitterson noted that rules regarding searching students would change this coming school year with the addition of a school resource officer from the Albany County Sheriff’s Office. Currently, administrators are allowed to search students, but an officer may also search students with an administrator present.

Suggestions will be given to the school board for review before the code of conduct is updated this year.

Tags:

More Hilltowns News