The mother of an autistic San Luis Obispo High School student who was the target of an alleged hate crime spoke at the San Luis Coastal school board meeting on Tuesday, calling on the district to take bullying more seriously and expedite its process for handling complaints.
“I thank the SLOPD and the DAs and probation officers for taking this as seriously as they have,” Holly Holliday said. “I don’t think you guys took (her son’s harassment case) as seriously as they have.”
About a dozen other advocates also spoke before the board at its Tuesday meeting, urging the district to proactively address harassment, and implement better policies and practices to prevent it.
Holliday’s son was allegedly harassed for several months, leading to the arrest of a classmate on March 1.
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In response, Superintendent Eric Praters said that the district’s “teachers and site administrators work tirelessly to create safe learning environments for our students.
“Our district and school board is determined to improve and refine our practices to develop increasingly safe and healthy learning environments for all students,” Prater said in an email sent to The Tribune. “I believe we have great schools that are safe...but we can still do more.”
On Wednesday, Holliday spoke to The Tribune, sharing the story of her son’s experience.
A mother’s story
In her address to the board, Holliday accused the district of failing to keep her autistic son safe and said the harassment didn’t stop until the police got involved — resulting in a hate crime charge against a 15-year-old San Luis Obispo High student.
“As a parent, I left feeling really sad,” Holliday said of her interactions with the district. “I felt like I didn’t have any sort of say or protection for my student in this district.”
Holliday said that her son, who is high-functioning on the autism spectrum, faced harassment for months.
She said her son suffered taunts about his sexual orientation and that the other student grabbed his buttocks. She clarified that her son is not gay.
She said the alleged bully also encouraged others to call her son a “school shooter,” even though her son has no behavioral issues and had “never done anything to make anyone think he’ll harm them.”
“My son had spoken with teachers and school staff about this student multiple times,” Holliday said.
Eventually, the bullying lead to an altercation on campus, Holliday said, when the student crowded her son’s space one day and her son pushed him away. The other student then put her son in a headlock and punched him, and her son punched back, she said. Holliday said her son then got on his bike and fled.
The boy then obtained her son’s cell phone number through another student, Holliday said, and sent threatening text messages. That’s when police got involved, Holliday said.
Police said that the suspect allegedly threatened the victim after discovering a police report had been filed against him, and that the intimidation took place at school, Holliday said.
“The two boys were told to stay apart, but the other boy waited for my son outside of class,” Holliday said. “He was then threatened outside of his classroom, where he was supposed to be safe. I was told by the school he was going to be safe.”
The district has said it can’t respond to specifics of the situation because it’s a student discipline matter.
Holliday said she wasn’t aware of a formal complaint process until she met with Assistant Superintendent Kimberly McGrath on Tuesday, and also feels the school’s disciplinary policy on bullying is unclear about how an offending student can be punished.
“The other student now is no longer at SLO High, and that made my son a lot happier and a lot safer,” Holliday said. “He’s a lot lighter as a kid when he comes home.”
A call for action
Advocates at Tuesday’s meeting said that bullying is a problem at the district, and they noted that vulnerable groups in particular are often targeted by bullies, such as the disabled, LGBTQ and Jewish students, to name a few.
They recommended implementing a more effective written complaint system, where the form can be easily found on the district’s website, and providing mentoring and training for students and staff to better handle bullying situations.
Douglas Heumann, chair of the Tranz Central Coast advocacy network, called for the hiring of an independent investigator to review district bullying policies and investigate how past complaints and informal notes to student files were handled by the district.
Those measures would help prevent escalation of incidents, like in the case of Holliday’s said, Heumann said.
“We are concerned for the victim, but also the perpetrator,” Heumann said. “...Why was this student not held responsible for his earlier actions (leading up to the alleged assault)?”
Another speaker, Jeff Specht, requested the district hire a school resource officer to keep a police presence on campus, saying that would deter bullying.
“I think it would be a preventative measure,” Specht said. “We have a beautiful town, and I want to keep it safe.”
Prater said that in the case of the student who was arrested, the district has spent “countless hours reflecting on how we could have intervened differently or more effectively.”
“I can’t discuss specifics.; however, we have heightened our awareness, made specific adjustments and expect to improve our practices as a result,” Prater said. “We want all of our students to feel and be safe.”
The district superintendent said that funding has dried up for a school resource officer. The position was last employed six years ago on campus through a shared contract with the police.
“At this point, we continue to partner with our local law enforcement agencies; however, we do not officially have an (officer) assigned to our sites,” Prater said.
Prater said the district’s collective data doesn’t support an independent investigator to review how bullying complaints have been handled, citing school surveys and research.
He said the district is working to make its written complaint system more visible on its website, and that systems are in place to help struggling students.
“Our district addresses student issues every day that include a multitude of student conflicts and peer issues,” Prater said. “We have layers and layers of interventions that support all types of students who struggle.”