York officials respond to bullying allegations after teen's suicide

York schools and law enforcement officials said Wednesday that they tried to quash an ongoing confict between two Grafton High School students in the weeks prior to the suicide earlier this week of one of the students.

In response to Christian Taylor's death on Monday, a York-Poquoson Sheriff's Office official also said a criminal investigation has been opened.

Taylor, a 16-year-old freshman at Grafton High School, hanged himself at his family's home. His mother, Alise Williams, said her son was repeatedly bullied since starting school in January after the family relocated to York from Texas.

Alise Williams said she contacted officials from the York County School Division and York-Poquoson Sheriff's Office about her son's harassment by another student, but she didn't feel school officials did enough to alleviate the situation.

"They didn't do anything," Alise Williams said. "I had five meetings. I asked them if I needed to pull my son out of school to keep him safe, and they assured me that he would be safe."

York schools Superintendent Eric Williams spoke generally, adding that student privacy restrictions prohibit him from discussing specific actions administrators took in Taylor's case.

"School administrators were made aware of the situation at the school in mid-May," Williams said. "Within a day, they met with students and parents and took immediate action. Additional contacts were made in the following days with parents and students."

Teachers and counselors at the school were asked to inform administrators if they became aware of any incidents between the students, he added. School officials also made contact with Taylor "throughout the month of May to determine if additional assistance was needed or if there were additional concerns."

Examples of action that might be taken in similar cases include monitoring an individual student's behavior, assigning them to sit elsewhere at lunch or in class, reviewing with students opportunities to report concerns, conducting mediations between students, reviewing expectations with students and disciplining students who don't meet expectations, Eric Williams said.

Sgt. Dennis Ivey, Jr., an investigator with the York-Poquoson Sheriff's Office, said his department was also involved.

Approximately two weeks ago, Taylor's mother contacted the sheriff's office and reported that her son had been involved in some sort of altercation at school and claimed that "kids were harassing him" Ivey said.

The School Resource Officer assigned to Grafton High School got involved with school officials and a meeting was held "with all parties involved." Ivey said it was determined during the meeting that "not only had no crime been committed, but no threats were directed at the victim."

A plan of action was offered by the school to the family, Ivey said. That was the extent of the sheriff's office's involvement and they heard nothing more about the situation or any further problems until Taylor's death, he added.

Now, an investigation has been opened and is ongoing.

"Due to the tragic circumstances, we are investigating now to make sure nothing happened to the child that we weren't aware of to make sure no crimes were committed against this child," Ivey said. "There were no threats of bodily harm we are aware of, but we want to make sure. That's why we're investigating."

Bullying has been addressed as a specific behavior problem in schools, and steps taken to include it as an unacceptable behavior.

State law mandates that each school board include prohibitions against bullying in its code of conduct. In addition, school boards are required to establish character education programs in its schools that include addressing the inappropriateness of bullying.

In 2005, the General Assembly amended the law on character education to prohibit bullying and to teach anti-bullying. In 2006 the Virginia Board of Education, with assistance from the Virginia Department of Education, updated the Student Conduct Policy Guidelines to address bullying and cyber bullying and provided each school division with a kit to help implement this requirement, according to VDOE spokeswoman Julie Grimes.

Each local school district has a policy and they are all similar.

"Anti-bullying/hazing lessons are part of our curriculum, and anti-bullying activities occur in our schools throughout the school year and in January during Bullying Prevention Month," said Betsy Overkamp-Smith, spokeswoman for York schools. "Our counselors, administrators and teachers have received training in bullying prevention and incorporate that training into the lessons and conversations that they have with students."

York's anti-bullying policy

Bullying is a Conduct Code offense defined as negative behaviors intended to frighten or cause harm and target a specific victim. Bullying behaviors may include, but are not limited to, physical intimidation, taunting, name calling, insults, falsifying statements about other persons and/or comments regarding the race, gender, religion, physical abilities or characteristics of associates of the targeted person.

Source: York County School Division

Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times
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