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Bullying left students hurt, demoralized and looking for a way out

by TAYLOR INMAN
Bigfork Eagle | January 25, 2023 12:00 AM

This is the first in a three-part series examining the effects of bullying through the lens of students, parents and faculty at Bigfork High School.

She was struggling to breathe as tears ran down her face. Even in the relative safety of the bathroom, her anxiety bubbled up into a panic attack.

15-year-old Annmarie Edwards, a student at Bigfork High School, reached for her phone and called her mother: Can I get a ride home?

She had retreated to the gray-tiled confines of the restrooms after the latest humiliation at the hands of her schoolmates, this time directed at her weight. A few minutes before she was outside, enjoying a break in classes with a slushie. She was talking and joking with friends when a classmate yanked the frozen drink from her hand.

“This guy was like, ‘You don’t need another slushie,’” Edwards recalled.

Upset, she wheeled around and looked for the thief: “Who said that?”

She was met with more jeering as she followed him back into the school building.

“He was like, ‘You don’t need another one … just go,’” Edwards recalled.

So she did, into the bathroom. And she waited for her mother to arrive as the panic welled up from deep inside of her.

“... That was, like, one of the first times and that was really humiliating,” Edwards said.

Bullying is not unique to Bigfork. But the district has not always risen to the challenge. Edwards, a sophomore, turned to homeschooling after the first day of school in 2022. She is one of several to depart the district in recent months after becoming the target of bullies.

Administrators and educators emphasize the difficulty they face when addressing bullying. Despite outreach efforts, Principal Mark Hansen believes he and his colleagues likely are missing many instances of bullying.

“... We don’t have a lot of reports, but I’m not proud about that,” he said. “I think bullying is going on. I think a lot of kids are taking on the brunt of that when they should be sharing that with a counselor or principal, coach or a teacher.”

The effects of bullying are well documented. According to the PACER National Bullying Prevention Center, it leaves kids struggling with schoolwork, developing health issues like headaches and stomachaches, as well as higher rates of anxiety and depression. Students subjected to bullying become afraid of their classmates and prone to self-isolation. It leads to suicidal ideation.

Edwards’ mother, Mandi Edwards, said her daughter has received mental health treatment from Pathways four times since beginning high school. Annmarie Edwards suffers from depression and anxiety. She has contemplated suicide in the past.

“My daughter wants to kill herself because these kids are making her feel so horrible,” Mandi Edwards said. “And my daughter is super bright — she’s a beautiful person.”

“She’s always had that sparkle in her eyes and the light has gone out,” Mandi Edwards added.

The state requires school districts to adopt measures dealing with bullying and harassment. The Bigfork School District employs a “no tolerance” bullying policy. Administrators take several actions when confronted with a bullying issue, all based on ensuring the victim’s safety. Those include alerting the student’s teachers, sitting down with the students involved and referring the victim to the school resource officer if necessary.

Educators define bullying as a specific act: When one student continually harasses, picks on and belittles another. Bigfork Superintendent Tom Stack differentiated bullying from a one off case of a child being mean to another or two children being mean to each other. All of these behaviors are unacceptable and corrected when possible, but making sure a bully steers clear from returning to that bad behavior can be hard to ensure, he said.

For 15-year-old Jayda Anderson, who departed the district in the spring of 2022, those efforts felt too little, too late.

Classmates picked up on the fact that she was biracial early on and by middle school she was subjected to taunting that began to feel racist. Looking back, she described it as microaggressions or small, inconspicuous comments with racial undertones.

That changed as she exited the school bus one afternoon freshman year.

“One of the kids on the bus even called me a porch monkey as I was getting off,” she wrote in a letter she sent the district after moving away from Bigfork to end the bullying.

She also detailed a freshman year trip, remembering trying to coach her classmates about racism and respect. One of her classmates, to her recollection, said racist slurs only became a problem in recent years.

“Then she said it — the N-word, I mean,” Anderson wrote. “The whole bus heard and started giggling. I cried like a wimp, completely humiliated.”

She grew up in the Flathead Valley but she and her mother, Dana Anderson, planned on joining Jayda Anderson’s sister in Ohio upon graduation. They expedited that move after several years of bullying.

“Lots of the boys are very hormonal, rough — they make crude jokes to each other and to other people. They have an attitude where it’s like, ‘Well, I don’t care what you think.’ And with me being one of the only Black kids in Bigfork, it was just a recipe for disaster,” Jayda Anderson said.

Her schoolwork began suffering and she began withdrawing, said Dana Anderson. Jayda, she said, “was just miserable.”

“It’s just really sad, and I know that bullying happens all over the place, all the time, but it’s just kind of an ignorant thing,” Dana Anderson said.

After deciding to leave the school district, Jayda Anderson penned a letter addressed to administrators and teachers at the high school. She thought it might have an effect. The Andersons said they never received a response.

But it came up at a Bigfork School Board meeting in July — at the behest of a parent. A family friend made it public while holding members and administrators to account. The next time racism emerges in Bigfork, you will know it’s not isolated, she said.

“I understand that her letter did not leave much actionable for the school or the board and that it was meant as her goodbye to Bigfork,” Sarah Peterson said. “But I hope that you are all now aware of the pain that she suffered as a result of her fellow students’ poor judgment and lack of empathy.”

Her comments sparked a brief discussion between board members. It focused mostly on how unfortunate the situation was. The board took no formal action.

School officials initially balked at turning over Jayda’s letter. In response to a public records request filed by the Bigfork Eagle, Superintendent Tom Stack argued the missive did not qualify as public information.

“Moreover, I believe it would be inappropriate for the district to make the letter public without the consent of the student,” Stack wrote in an email in July. “This is the legal advice we have received from the school attorney that we use.”

In the face of a lawsuit filed in Flathead County District Court, administrators eventually offered to pass along the Andersons’ contact information. The Andersons, in turn, shared Jayda’s letter.

“I am leaving Bigfork High because it has made me miserable,” it reads. “There have been days that I come home crying, feeling worthless and ugly. Often, I cry myself to sleep or cry in the shower or sometimes even at school … Never had I been the type to cry this much. But something has changed this year.”

“Hate and ignorance fills the halls of Bigfork schools,” Jayda wrote.

The letter wasn’t entirely critical. Jayda thanked friends and teachers for supporting her as well as detailing efforts Principal Mark Hansen took to help her. She blamed herself for not going to administrators earlier.

But she had seen friends report bullying to little effect. By the time Hansen began looking into it, Jayda had already settled on her move to Ohio.

A reason students and parents may feel overlooked relates to laws around privacy, Hansen said. The Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act of 1974 protects students from having information regarding their disciplinary record made public. Administrators are unable to discuss discipline taken against bullies with the victim and their family.

That same law, administrators stressed, prevented them from discussing specifics regarding Jayda’s circumstances.

Grayson Pittenger, 15, a friend and one-time classmate of Annmarie Edwards, has suffered similar bullying incidents. A young person exploring their gender expression and sexuality, Pittenger has had slurs hurled at them in the hallways of Bigfork High School.

“They shouldn’t be allowed to say that, honestly,” Pittenger said of the slurs. “But there’s a lot of people who get away with saying that stuff and ‘You should kill yourself’ and really horrible stuff like that.”

“It can have a really bad effect on your mental health — the constant mistreatment,” continued Pittenger, who recalled missing school regularly in eighth and ninth grade. “I had a lot of depression days where I’d wake up and wouldn’t even be able to get myself out of bed or manage to take myself to school because I hated it so much.”

Unlike Edwards, Pittenger has decided to stay at Bigfork High School as commuting to other districts isn’t possible.

The last straw for Edwards and her mother came the first day of school in August 2022. Edwards woke up that morning in tears, dreading her return to the classroom. Still, she made it through the day. Afterward, she decided to read a book in Sliters Park while waiting for her mother to get off of work.

A group of middle schoolers broke her reverie.

“They were telling me to go kill myself and I was just sitting there by the river reading a book,” she recalled.

She’d had enough. Soon after, Edwards withdrew from the district, leaving Bigfork and her bullies behind.

Reporter Taylor Inman can be reached by calling 406-758-4433 or by emailing tinman@dailyinterlake.com.

photo

Annmarie Edwards works on school assignments in Bigfork on Thursday, Dec. 29. (Casey Kreider/Daily Inter Lake)