COEUR d'ALENE - School officials in Coeur d'Alene pledged a continuing commitment to eliminating bullying and harassment in district schools after several parents testified at Monday's board meeting that their children have been the targets of bullying and racism.
"Racism does exist, and my next point is, how is the district prepared to deal with it?" said Deon Watson, the father of a bi-racial family with two children attending Coeur d'Alene schools.
Watson's oldest son graduated from Coeur d'Alene High School last year, and is now playing football, on a scholarship, at the University of Idaho. The father spoke of the pain of watching his child be subjected to "racist comments" and bullying, and told the school board not to forget that they serve students of many different races, religions and economic backgrounds.
"Each student deserves an equal opportunity to an educational environment that is free of harassment and bullying," Watson said.
Watson's wife, Anna, also spoke to the board.
She said that while she's grateful for the large amounts of money donated to the sports and activities programs in the district's high schools, it sometimes has unpleasant consequences for some students. When bullying and harassment occurs, the children of large donors are not being held to the same disciplinary standard as others, she said.
"The rules apply to everyone, not just to the kids whose parents don't have money and don't have power, but to all the kids," Anna Watson said. "My son graduated and we went through this all the time he was in high school."
The parents stated their concerns during a board meeting that began with an apology from one of the board members, Brent Regan.
"I made a regrettable comment and some people found it offensive, and I'm deeply sorry for that and I'd just like to take a moment to apologize to you, and the administration, the parents, the students and the teachers for any negative effects that that might have caused you, and distress, and bad reflection on the school district," Regan said.
During a Jan. 26 legislative forum in Post Falls, Regan shared a comment his wife made comparing President Obama to an assault rifle, referring to both as "black" and appearing "scary." Critics cast the comment as "racist" and Regan apologized following the incident.
He told The Press that he had a telephone conversation with a parent who helped him understand how the comment had hurt her children.
That woman was Anna Watson.
Following the meeting, Watson said she felt that Regan's apology was sincere.
"I respect him because he listened to me, and he thought about it. I want to give him a chance," Watson said.
Doneisa Eborall also spoke to the board on Monday.
"I have to speak for my daughter. She was a seventh-grader last year, severely bullied," Eborall said.
She said she took her child to the doctor. There were counselors. Her little girl was put on anti-depressants, and missed 25 days of school one semester because she didn't want to go. Eborall said she had to homeschool her child.
"You have to stop bullying - the racist bullying, the higher class bullying, the girls who think they're better than everybody else bullying. It's affecting my kid," Eborall said.
She said she wants to see her daughter, now in eighth grade, finish school.
"She would go to bed and not want to wake up because she wished that she was dead. She didn't want to deal with the kids," Eborall said. "I think racism, it needs to be addressed. I love this community, but I hate this community. Take some action."
Superintendent Hazel Bauman apologized to the parents.
"It's absolutely not what I want our school system to be. It is not what I condone at any level whatsoever, and I take your concerns very seriously," Bauman said.
Bauman said she has met with some of the parents, and she did take action, meeting with the administration at the school where the allegations were made.
"We devised a plan of remediation. The perpetrators, the students that were accused of being the bullies, were met with and spoken with. Disciplinary action was taken both at the student level and at staff level," Bauman said. "I want to make sure that the audience and the community knows that we took very significant action. Actually in one case, somebody's employment ended."
She said it's a complex problem with no simple answers, and that her own child was bullied when he was in middle school.
"Kids called him gay, and he was in bed crying and I held him in my arms too, and rocked him and told him how my heart was breaking for him. I know personally what it feels like as a parent to see the vulnerability of your child, so I take it very, very seriously," she said.
Bauman said the district is working to address bullying on all levels, addressing race, religion and gender. They are looking at different programs to put in place, and reviewing whether the district has enough counselors to work with the victims of bullying and the perpetrators.
Regarding the allegation that there is "undue influence with financial donations with families of means," Bauman said she and board chair Tom Hamilton are working on a draft addendum to the district's current policy to address the issue. They are working to tie the district's policy to the Idaho High School Activities Association's code of ethics.
"What I said to Superintendent Bauman when we started looking at this, I won't be a man who puts a win-loss record ahead of the character of our coaches, the character of our assistant coaches, and the character of our parents, the behavior of our parents and the behavior of our participants," Hamilton said.
They've come up with several actions addressing this situation that are being reviewed by principals right now, and will then go before the board for approval.
"There won't much grass that grows under our feet in implementing those steps once we're done with that document," Hamilton said.
Hamilton apologized to the parents if the district's response seems slow, but said that a lot of detail has gone into addressing the situation.
"Cultural changes are not easy, and if all we do is pay lip service to this, we have not changed the culture, and I assure you, I won't be done with it until the culture changes," Hamilton said.
Bauman said she would call on the district's finance staff to audit the activities and budgets at the district's secondary schools.
Trustee Terri Seymour became choked up while speaking on the issue.
"I can make a stand right now. It is going to stop, and I will do everything in my power, with this board's help," Seymour said. "It will not continue. That means, whether it be principals, parents, students and teachers. I want it stopped. It needs to stop now, and I apologize and I will do my best to make sure that it stops. I'm sorry. I get very emotional about it because my children were bullied also."