Investigation into playground bullying caught on video continues at OMS; privacy rules apply

By Dave Marner, Managing Editor
Posted 11/13/19

An investigation into an apparent bullying incident on the Owensville Middle School playground, viewed on a video recording which began circulating late Nov. 6, continues this week, according to R-2 …

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Investigation into playground bullying caught on video continues at OMS; privacy rules apply

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An investigation into an apparent bullying incident on the Owensville Middle School playground, viewed on a video recording which began circulating late Nov. 6, continues this week, according to R-2 Superintendent Dr. Chuck Garner.

“They’re conducting the investigation and taking action on what needs to be addressed,” said Garner on Tuesday in reference to administrators at the middle school.

Garner acknowledged last week the students were from Owensville Middle School and faced disciplinary action in accordance with school district policies spelled out in the student handbook.

“These are based on a code of conduct at the handbook level,” said Garner.

He was monitoring the situation closely and clearly pointed out their investigation involved student privacy concerns which he would not be able to address publicly.

“I can’t get at the specifics of disciplining 12- and 13-year-old minor students,” said Garner. “It’s based under FIRPA guidelines. I’m not allowed to get into discipline of minor students or comment on student records.”

Schools are governed on privacy issues under the federal Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act (FIRPA), explained Garner. This protects students and student records.

“According to the law and (our) policy, we will continue to work with our students and staff  as we deal with these types of behavior”

Garner said they will monitor the situation and address it as best as they can based on school policy. Schools were not in session Tuesday due to icy rural road conditions across the district and classes were dismissed early on Monday.

Ken Hunott, assistant principal at OMS, said Monday during the school’s Veterans Day program that their investigation was continuing. As for any discipline already administered, he said candidly, “we got past that point already. It had to be done in a timely manner.” And, he added, “We’re still investigating.”

Garner said the district does not condone instances of bullying and will address the situation. He hopes, he said, this incident can become a “teachable moment” for both students and staff.

At the staff level, Garner said they are continuously reviewing their policies and procedures. There are certain questions they ask of themselves any time something  like this might take place.

“When it occurs? How it occurs? Do we have enough supervision? What changes to do we need to make. How did we handle it? Did we handle it correctly?” said Garner.

He said school officials are constantly looking at their policies and procedures. And when necessary, they “modify and make it better.”

The district has previously implemented a peer mediation program at the middle school where students are trained as peer mediators to help resolve in-school problems. Prior programs, one which dated back to around 2007, focused on team building skills which were also designed to help middle school students resolve conflicts.

The video recording of the incident began circulating on Facebook late on the evening of Nov. 6.

The middle school’s principal discussed the issue with The Republican late Thursday morning following several hours of close-door interviews with students and staff.

“It was brought to our attention this morning,” said Teresa Schulte about numerous messages viewed by school officials on Facebook. “It’s been going around since last night so we’re taking immediate action.”

Schulte, along with her assistant principal, Hunott, and the school district’s resource police officer, Brenn Finley, spent the morning interviewing students about what transpired on the playground.

“We’re still trying to investigate it,” said Schulte. “Other than that, we’re taking immediate action.”

Schulte declined to comment on if the video was recorded by a student in a whistleblower capacity or someone who was involved as a member of the group participating in the apparent mockery of their fellow student.

“I’m not at liberty to talk about it right now,” she said. “We’re still trying to investigate it. Other than that, we are taking immediate action. We take it seriously so I’d have to say we’re looking at all the angles.”

“The investigation is ongoing,” added Finley, the district’s school resource officer and an Owensville policeman.

“We know these are our kids,” said Garner later that morning. “From what I know it’s from this week. It came to our attention last night.”

Garner said he received an email around 12:30 a.m. Thursday about the incident and the social media posting of the video. He said communication between himself and his building administrators began immediately once he received the message.

“We’re following the board (of education) policy and code of conduct to take appropriate action as soon as possible. We’re going to do everything we can to address this.”

“We’re investigating this. We’re looking at what precipitated it, what happened prior to this, and taking a thorough look into it. And we’re asking for partnership with the parents and the community. Have conversations with your kiddos.”

When asked if district officials knew the identity of the person who recorded the video, Garner said he could not address questions about specific parties who may be involved. He did say it was his understanding a third party posted the video.

“The video was shared and then posted (to Facebook),” he said.

Garner said building administrators were still working late Thursday morning to determine who actually recorded the incident to “get their statement,” while noting, “we always want to have first-hand knowledge” of what transpired.

Garner said they hope parents become involved in this incident and speak with their children about what kind of behavior toward other students is appropriate and what is obviously inappropriate.

“We want a safe, caring environment for all our kids,” Garner said. “That’s the bottom line.”

Garner noted that “bullying is a very clear-cut offense” in the district’s policy manual. Bullying and cyber-bullying are both punishable by between one to 30 days worth of out-of-school suspension.

Building principals are authorized to immediately suspend a student out-of-school for up to 10 days.

Suspensions of more than 10 days and up to 30 days are made under the authority of the superintendent. Garner has the authority to suspend a student up to 180 days.

Any suspensions of more than 180 days require approval by the Board of Education.

“Everything beyond 180 goes to the board,” said Garner.

Garner said the middle school’s administrators will be tasked with determining “through their investigation” what board policy has been violated in this incident.

Garner said on Thursday his approach to this situation is just like it was when he was a building principal earlier in his career. He’s looking for the answer to two questions he typically asked a student who came to his office for a disciplinary referral.

He said he’d ask the student if they were “working hard” in class and if they were “being nice to others.”

Those two issues were the major issues with discipline and the most simple to resolve. “Work hard in class and be nice to others,” he said.

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