By Callie Hietala
The Henry County School Board heard emotional comments from students, relatives, and other community members who came to the podium to remember a 14-year-old Magna Vista student who, they said, took his life in September.
Greyson Coleman was part of the school’s JV football team, according to speakers at the meeting. They alleged that he was bullied both by teammates and adults.
“We need to have not only a no-bullying policy in regard to the students, but it also needs to fall back to the teachers and to the coaches,” Susan Fulcher, Coleman’s aunt, said through tears.
If a student used profanity toward another student or was otherwise harassing them, Fulcher said “there would be some punishment for that student.” However, she said the same standards do not apply if, for instance, a coach exhibits similar behavior.
“Making (the players) tough is one thing, but being just downright cruel and mean is wrong,” she said, and called for anti-bullying training for teachers, coaches, and other school staff.
“The thought of another parent, another family member, another student going through this, it breaks my heart,” she said. “I can’t stand the thought of it.”
Nydia Wilson, who said that she had children in Henry County schools, noted that six years ago, her daughter was bullied while attending what was Laurel Park Middle School.
“I pleaded with whoever would listen to please help her, but it continued,” she said. Eventually, Wilson said she homeschooled her daughter. Upon her daughter’s return to the classroom in her 8th grade year, “I soon learned the devastating gravity of what trauma from bullying and then isolation can do. It made her an easy target for a predator.”
Wilson said her 14-year-old daughter nearly ended her own life. “It was a fight for her to survive. All of this could have been prevented had adequate policies been in place at that time and if we were listened to when we begged for help.”
Wilson said this year, her son met Coleman and made a new friend in school. The day after Coleman’s suicide, she said a teacher read a pre-written statement to her son’s class explaining that the boy had died.
“There was not a counselor nor an extra support person in that classroom,” she said. “The class went on as usual. There are not enough proactive resources” to prevent bullying in schools. “Certainly not enough policy to hold children accountable.”
Statistics she presented from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and the American Psychological Association (APA), indicated that 1 in 5 teens report being bullied each year.
“That’s 160,000 kids who miss school days each year for the fear of being bullied,” she said, adding that, according to the CDC, suicide is the third leading cause of death among young people and that, for every death that occurs, there are 100 more suicide attempts.
Additionally, victims of bullying are up to 9 times more likely to consider suicide than those who have not been bullied, she said.
“The one thing we can implement today is what we don’t have in Henry County, which is a zero-tolerance policy against bullying,” Wilson said, and suggested that schools “need strong consequences paired with requirements for bullies to receive counseling and mental health treatments. Long live Greyson.”
Brayden Wilson, a sophomore at Magna Vista, told the board about his experience going to school the day after Coleman’s suicide.
“It kind of makes you feel sick to your stomach as the reality of it sinks in,” he said, and read a tribute to his friend.
Matt Woods, director of student support services, said that counselors routinely teach character lessons related to well-being. The schools implemented a district-wide social-emotional learning (SEL) screener last year, and he is in the process now of helping schools and administrators analyze the data from this year’s screening to understand how students feel about schools and the relationships they have with staff and other students.
He added that there is an anonymous feedback tab on the district’s website where students, parents, and community members can reach out with concerns if they don’t feel comfortable talking directly to someone.
The United Way of Henry County & Martinsville and the Southside Survivor Response Center have co-sponsored the Talk-It-Out hotline, where concerns can be raised and then forwarded to the schools.
Schools Superintendent Sandy Strayer said she has received messages both through the anonymous website tab as well as from board members.
“Whatever makes you feel most comfortable, we want to know what’s going on,” she said, and emphasized that communication between parents, students, and staff is crucial.
“You can’t improve what you don’t know,” she said, encouraging parents to speak out if an issue happens again, rather than just reporting it once.
She said that the school system trains its staff on bullying.
“We are doing training with our staff. We will continue to do staff training, and that includes people that are not teachers,” she said. “We take every situation seriously.”
Strayer added that the county has a zero tolerance when it comes to bullying. However, just as it cannot discuss personnel issues, the schools also do not publicly share actions taken regarding students.
“We discuss student issues with their family members,” Strayer said, but cannot discuss it with other people. “That’s where trust is very important. You have to trust that we’re going to do what’s right by the students.”
In other matters, the board:
* Heard from several during public comment who spoke against the mask mandate in schools.
* Heard two proclamations from Gov. Ralph Northam. The first proclaimed the month of October Bullying Prevention Awareness Month and the second declaring October Disability Employment Awareness Month.
* Heard from a group of cybersecurity students and instructor Donna Hicks, from the Career Academy, about how to stay safe online in honor of Cybersecurity Awareness Month.
* Approved the consent agenda, including minutes from the September 2 meeting and payment of regular bills.
* Approved the reimbursement of $174,773.12 to the nutrition budget for extra costs incurred due to COVID-19. The board approved an additional appropriation of $235,061 to the nutrition budget for the fresh fruit and vegetable program.
* Viewed the superintendent’s monthly highlights video.