JOSHUA TREE — About 100 people filtered into the Friendly Hills Elementary School multipurpose room Wednesday night for a town hall meeting on bullying in Morongo Basin schools. The meeting was mostly attended by MUSD employees with only a handful of parents in the audience.
Over the past few months, several parents have reported intense bullying at local schools and requested a venue to express their concerns and work toward solutions. The district quickly put together the meeting.
The meeting kicked off with a slide show about the definition of bullying in California: severe or pervasive physical or verbal acts or conduct. To be considered bullying, there must be repeated actions or threats, a power imbalance and an intention to cause harm, said Garrett Gruwell, coordinator of child welfare and attendance for the district.
“Bullying is not calling someone a name or pushing someone once,” Gruwell said. “Being rude or having an argument with someone is not bullying.”
Gruwell went on to explain that California law prohibits the suspension of students in first through third grade for disrupting school activities or willfully defying authority.
“California law doesn’t allow us to just look at an individual situation anymore and just throw that child into the wind and say, ‘Goodbye you’re not welcome back,’” said Yucca Valley High School Principal Justin Monical.
Monical attended the meeting as one of 14 panelists. The panel included school administrators, counselors and district staff.
Monical and Yucca Valley Elementary School Principal Celeste Wahlberg discussed the steps they take when bullying is brought to their attention.
At the elementary school level, Wahlberg said school staff will have the bully and the student being bullied meet with each other. Staff moderates while they talk.
“We talk about being friends and being responsible and being safe,” she said.
These talks can lead to punishments, which range from school cleanup to detention depending on the student and the nature of the bullying.
Monical said at the high school level, they go through a similar process but he noted that bullying investigations can get complicated because oftentimes students will not want to report that they are being bullied.
“We try to get as accurate of an account as possible from the victim. Word of an investigation like that travels fast,” he said. “The investigation gets complicated and it can never move as fast as we would want it to.”
For high school students, punishment for bullying can be suspension up to five days and a recommendation for expulsion, Monical said.
Morongo Teachers Association President Kojo McCallum said the district was missing the point, which was that there are still a number of students who do not feel safe at school.
“We’re not advocating for students to be suspended, we’re advocating for safer schools,” McCallum said. “There are kids hitting kids and then going back to class minutes later. That’s not safe.”
McCallum spoke at the last school board meeting about the bullying problem. And while he was glad the school district was addressing the problem, he was concerned with the lack of parents in attendance.
He was also disappointed that the meeting was led by a moderator instead of allowing audience members to speak directly to panelists.
“It’s just not getting to the problem,” he said.
The panelists emphasized that, while there is no one-size-fits-all solution for bullying, a consistent system across grade levels and schools would help address the problem.
They also emphasized that no child should be afraid to go to school and they urged parents to communicate with them as much as possible.