When the new academic year begins at Johnston’s schools in just a few weeks, hallways and classrooms will still echo from the recent testimony of parents and students who complained of bullying in the town’s schools.
“My kid has been through hell,” said Tim Young, father of 13-year-old Ferri Middle school student Patrick.
Bullying grabbed the attention of the community, teachers and school administrators during the July Johnston School Committee Meeting held at Ferri Middle School, where victims of bullying and their families appeared as speakers and presented their stories.
“I’ve had four years of my life stolen from me in this [Ferri] school. I’ve been verbally and mentally abused. I’ve been diagnosed with severe depression because of the hell I’ve been through. I don’t have good memories of my time here,” said Nicole Denoit, a former Ferri student.
According to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, bullying is “aggressive behavior among school-aged children that involves a real or perceived power imbalance, such as physical strength, access to embarrassing information or popularity, to control or harm others.” This behavior usually occurs for extended durations and can have lasting effects on both the bully and their victim, including negative impacts on mental health, substance use and suicide.
“Last year I was assaulted. I was put in a headlock, thrown into a locker and then thrown on the ground. I’ve been ganged up on in the hallways and stabbed in the back with a nail from a chair,” said Patrick Young. “I’m afraid to go to school; most days I don’t want to go. No child should be afraid to go to school. I had perfect attendance in sixth grade.”
In an incident that occurred last April, as detailed in an email between the Young family and the middle school’s administration and provided to the Sun Rise by the Youngs, a classmate of Patrick’s “admitted that he would “shoot” Patrick if he didn’t stop annoying him.”
“My son has been bullied, beat up and had gun threats. Some incidents have been reported, some have not,” said Tim Young to the committee. “Problems are not being dealt with. We need to stop bullying at the middle school.”
“Some of our concerns have been addressed, some have not. I fear for the children’s safety in the schools,” said Kellie Young.
Another parent felt so concerned for her child’s well being that she’s relocated to another town in hopes of finding relief.
“I’ve moved my daughter out of this district because we feel unsafe. We left Johnston, a town we loved, and made the decision to move to Exeter,” said Sharon Denoit, mother of Nicole, during the session.
Nicole elaborated further on her experiences. “I’ve thought about killing myself. I have so much anxiety and depression. No one at the school does anything. No one cares. I don’t want anyone to have to go through this. I’ve missed tons of school,” said Denoit, who acknowledged she had a trembling voice while explaining her circumstances.
School committee members seemed surprised at the notion that bullying was occurring at the schools.
“I’ve been here seven years and never heard anything like this,” said school committee chair Janice D. Mele during one of the parents’ testimony.
Dennis Morrell, principal of Ferri, also addressed the committee. He acknowledged the families’ concerns, explained current policies, and outlined the steps he and the school have taken when bullying is reported.
“There are policies in place, and the state policy was adopted last year. These are in our handbook and online. Bullying policies are clear,” said Morrell.
A three-page document, Policy Against Bullying, adopted by the Johnston School Committee in June 2004, highlights 20 points, from general bullying definitions, reporting of incidents, staff and student responsibilities, safety plans, police notification and help for the victim, as the framework for protection and discipline. The document can be found at www.johnstonschools.org/documents/Policies/BullyPolicy.pdf.
“There are incidents that happen. Things are dealt with accordingly,” said Morrell at the meeting. “Every time an incident is filed I follow through. I can only handle things that are brought to my attention.”
During the incident from April, the offending child’s parents and the school’s resource officer were notified by Mr. Morrell.
“I believe this school is a safe place,” said Morrell.
Chuck Psilopoulos, Ferri’s School Resource Officer and longtime member of the Johnston Police Department, agrees.
“Things are gonna happen,” he said to the committee.
“To say that there’s nothing being done here is a false accusation,” Psilopoulos continued. “When things are brought to my attention, things are done, steps are taken, students are disciplined. I feel the administration handles things by the book.”
Once the public speakers had finished, the school committee’s consensus was that the issue should be looked into, however without a current planned timetable or different course of action.
“We will let Dr. DiLullo look into this,” said Chair Janice D. Mele, referring to Johnston’s Superintendent, Dr. Bernard DiLullo Jr., who was also present for the proceedings.
“When there is a significant issue, it comes before me.” Dr. DiLullo then told the committee.