By Shereen Siewert
WAUSAU — The parent of a Wausau elementary school fifth-grade student filed a complaint in November with the Wausau Police Department alleging that her daughter has been repeatedly subjected to sexual harassment and death threats by fellow students at the school.
The parent, whose name Wausau Pilot and Review will not release to protect the identity of the alleged victim, spoke Monday to the Wausau School Board and said her daughter has been called vulgar names and threatened with death on at least two occasions at Hawthorn Hills, 1600 Kickbusch St., in Wausau. In one case, the child who allegedly made the threat wrote the word “die” many times in the snow on the school playground and was not appropriately disciplined, the parent said.
According to the official report obtained by Wausau Pilot and Review, the parent and her daughter reported the harassment to the Wausau Police Department on the morning of Nov. 28.
In an interview, the alleged victim told police one student, a girl, first threatened to kill her near the start of the school year. At that time, the school’s interim principal, Amy Stutzriem, sat the two girls down to talk and resolved the issue, according to the report. But the alleged victim’s mother told police the girl also threatened other students.
The alleged victim then went on to tell police that another student, a boy, made vulgar, sexually suggestive comments to her on the playground and threatened to rape another female student.
An officer followed up by interviewing the school principal, who told police she was aware of the complaint and has been “continually working with students who were making poor choices,” the report states. The officer also spoke with the boy at the center of the allegations, who denied making the comments and instead blamed another boy, according to the report.
At Monday’s meeting, the alleged victim’s mother gave an impassioned plea for action, telling board members her daughter has been called names such as “whore” and “bitch” on a regular basis. The parent also told officials that the boy who had threatened both her daughter and another girl went on to win a “PBIS” behavior award from the school.
PBIS, which stands for Positive Behavioral Interventions and Supports, is a “proactive systems approach to establishing the behavioral supports and social culture needed for all students in a school to achieve social, emotional, and academic success,” according to the Wausau School District PBIS information page.
“As a Response to Intervention (RtI) model, PBIS applies a three-tiered system of support, and a problem-solving process to enhance the capacity of schools to effectively educate all students,” the page reads.
The report comes on the heels of an Oct. 24 incident in which an 8-year-old Hawthorn student was referred to Social Services after allegedly bringing an 8-inch knife into the school. The knife was discovered by the school principal in the child’s backpack, according to police.
School officials must now grapple with how best to deal with escalating behavioral issues, which Wausau School Board member Pat McKee, in his campaign for reelection to the board, called “the number one issue” facing the district.
Asked for comment, Hawthorn Interim Principal Amy Stutzriem referred Wausau Pilot and Review to Angela Lloyd, the interim director of pupil services for the Wausau School District. Lloyd said she will respond to questions after Wausau School Superintendent Keith Hilts issues a planned communication to students and parents later this week.
Hilts has so far not responded to a request for comment on the issue, which was one of several topics discussed Monday at a strategic planning session of the board that followed the regular school board meeting.
Wausau School Board President Jeff Leigh, in an email to Wausau Pilot and Review, said only that the planning session would “focus primarily on issues related to establishing a timetable for placing items of importance to board members on upcoming meeting agendas and looking over the results of the new superintendent’s listening sessions.”
But several school board members and a Wausau Pilot and Review reporter confirmed that the meeting did involve reviewing a draft for new, progressive discipline guidelines for the district to follow in the future. Full details of that plan have not yet been released.
Scholars and experts say peer-to-peer sexual harassment is a growing issue at schools in the U.S. and is not limited to middle or high school students. Further, such harassment can pose a unique legal problem for officials. As a general rule, schools are not liable for harm done to one person by another person on school grounds.
But, there are exceptions. And the U.S. Supreme Court landmark case allowing a parent to sue a school district for peer-to-peer sexual harassment, decided in 1999, also involved fifth-grade students.