Motivated by the tragedy of her daughter’s death and the “flood” of experiences others have since shared with her, Molly McClish is urging the Grand County School District to get serious about what she calls a “persistent bullying problem” that leaves some students unsafe at school. In the coming weeks, the Grand County Board of Education will seek to understand these issues, evaluating policies and programs that could help curb bullying and create a culture of empathy in local schools. But district officials say they desperately need the support of the community to make this effort happen, especially with regard to public input.
“If [the community’s] seeing bullying happen, we need to know about it,” said Grand County School District Superintendent J.T. Stroder. “When you shed light on those things, that’s how you get something solved. But people have to be willing to come forward and say something.”
After her daughter Lily, a student at Grand County Middle School (GCMS), died by suicide in January, McClish learned she had been the victim of persistent bullying and that some peers repeatedly told Lily to “kill herself.”
Factors surrounding suicide are vast and complex, McClish said, and cannot simply be pinned on one specific event or experience. However, she feels the violent language used against her daughter by fellow students was the “tipping point.”
“Suicide is a complex mixture of factors. ... [Lily] had the perfect storm of many layers of things going on,” McClish said. “However, I do believe [bullying] was the tipping point. The last thing she needed to hear that day was ‘kill yourself tonight — do it, do it, do it.’”
Now, McClish, a former Grand County High School (GCHS) teacher, is lending her efforts to addressing bullying throughout the school district. She calls the issue a “clear, persistent” problem affecting the health and safety of students in Moab.
“Flooded” is the only word McClish says can describe the number of people — students, parents, even district employees — who have come to her with their own stories about bullying in Grand County’s schools.
“It’s a culture of bullying, and anyone who is slightly different is targeted,” McClish said. “Parents and students have come to me expressing that they felt like not enough was done with bullying, and that the kids don’t feel safe to report. Employees who know and see the problem do not feel safe to report because they feel fearful for their job and for their children. What has become clear to me, is that this has been a problem for many, many years.”
Bullying on paper, in practice
McClish’s phone log tells a much different story than the state’s documentation of bullying behavior in Grand County’s schools.
Since such data collection began in 2013, Grand County has reported zero incidents of bullying to the Utah State Board of Education.
Although the Grand County School District handbook includes many descriptions of possible bullying behavior, it mainly speaks to any act that “endangers the physical or emotional health and safety of a student.”
The state’s data may say otherwise, but local school officials say bullying incidents do exist.
“Each year I receive some complaints of bullying behaviors by students towards other students,” said Taryn Kay, Helen M. Knight Elementary School (HMK) principal.
Responding to reports of bullying is a “critical priority” for HMK, Kay said, adding that each incident is taken seriously and thoroughly investigated. She said reports of bullying are then followed up with lessons in problem solving and engagement with the affected families.
According to GCHS Principal Stephen Hren, “bullying moves in waves” depending on the student body. While not currently pervasive at the high school, he says, it still occurs.
GCHS uses the school district’s discipline matrix to address bullying, Hren said. That matrix includes guidelines like staff intervention, parent notification, creating a “behavior plan” and possible suspension or expulsion.
“We deal with it accordingly based upon each situation,” Hren said.
GCMS Principal Melinda Snow was on vacation and unavailable for comment as of press time. However, the GCMS handbook indicates that students participate in “anti-bullying assemblies” conducted by Snow each term.
Although certain policies and programs are on the books, McClish said her daughter’s experience is a “clear indicator” that the entire community needs to take a closer look at the actual situation in Grand County’s schools.
There’s a difference, McClish said, between implementing policies on bullying and actually following through on those policies to create better outcomes for students.
“I don’t feel like my daughter should have had to die for a change. It could have changed a while ago and it could have made the difference for my daughter,” McClish said. “... You can put whatever policy you want in place, but if it isn’t enforced, if the people who are in the positions of enforcing these policies are not held accountable by everyone — by the community, the superintendent, the school board — then it will become [just] another nice set of words.”
‘We all have to work together’
At 24.5 percent, Utah’s suicide rate has remained consistently higher than the national average — 15.7 percent — for well over a decade, according to the Utah Department of Health.
The agency’s data shows that in 2015, 24.8 percent of Utah’s students reported feeling sad or hopeless, 16.6 percent of youth in grades six through 12 reported seriously considering suicide, and 7.6 percent reported they attempted suicide one or more times. It is the leading cause of death for Utahns ages 10 to 17.
The data also indicates that youth bullied at school more than once during the past year were 4.2 times more likely to have “seriously considered” suicide, compared to their peers who had not been bullied. For those bullied at least once at school and through social media, the likelihood is 5.8 times higher.
The Utah Suicide Prevention Coalition states that educators are “well positioned” to promote a feeling of connectedness and belonging in school — factors specifically related to reductions in suicidal thoughts and attempts.
Stroder called bullying at school a “safety and security issue” that needs proper attention from district officials.
“I think for anybody to say that there’s no bullying that occurs is probably sticking their head in the sand,” he said. “... We know [bullying] is occurring, what we have to figure out are the routes to address it.”
Changing how the schools address bullying behavior will take a concerted effort of the entire community, McClish said.
“We all have to work together as a community to shift this. ... How we’ve always done it no longer works,” she said. “I feel obligated, and I think everyone in this community should feel obligated if they care about changing our culture, if they care about the safety of our kids. You don’t know when it’s going to be your kid that’s a little bit different, or if it’s your kid that somebody ‘cool’ is not going to like.”
‘Bring it out into the open’
The Utah Legislature passed a law requiring school boards to update their policies on bullying by September 2018 mandating a process that creates certain standards such as school employee training.
The Grand County Board of Education will begin that work this summer, under the direction of Stroder and with persistent advocacy from McClish.
“I would encourage anyone who has had an experience with bullying at the schools to come forward,” McClish said. “If they feel like a bullying situation was not dealt with, or have issues with how it was dealt with, or if it created more harm for their child — this is the time. Because otherwise, it could get shuffled under the carpet again.”
School board member Beth Joseph said the Board of Education is “usually the last to know” about any bullying issues. When The Times-Independent reached out to the board, only one board member said they received personal complaints about bullying in the school district.
School board member Peggy Nissen said it is no longer the time to keep things hidden, and she hopes community members feel safe coming forward with any information about bullying that could help inform the board on the issue.
“I would welcome input from parents and others about their concerns with bullying,” Nissen said. “... I don’t think we should be hiding this stuff. We need to have it out in the open; we need to figure out how to fix this as best we can.”
Comments can be emailed to school district clerk Susan Feichko at firstname.lastname@example.org or mailed to district offices at 264 South 400 East, Moab UT 84532.
Individual school board member email adresses are available at: grandschools.org/boardofeducation. The district can also be reached at 435-259-5317.
For those seeking help or support, the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 800-273-8255, and Utah’s statewide crisis line at 801-587-3000 are available 24/7.