Taking classes online to avoid school bullying
DAYTON, Ohio — Krista Hooten knew something had to be done when she saw “terror” in her daughter’s eyes as they started back-to-school shopping for seventh grade.
Her daughter, Kelsey, had been bullied the previous year. It started with emotional abuse, such as other girls calling her ugly and spreading rumors about her. But it quickly turned physical. Her tormentors pulled her hair on the bus and shoved her to the ground. “It changed her personality,” Hooten said. “It was a horrible, horrible year.”
After Hooten returned from the shopping trip, she and her husband decided it was time to make a change. They pulled Kelsey from public school and enrolled her online, through a charter school connected with the national education company K12.
Nearly a quarter of parents who enrolled their children in online K12 programs said bullying was one of the reasons they removed their children from traditional schools, according to a recent survey. About 94 percent of those parents said going online helped address the problem.
One Online School Gets An "F"
But bullying is a larger and more complicated problem than that. One-third of all U.S. children — an estimated 13 million students nationwide — are targeted each year, according to the White House. Those students are “more likely to have challenges in school, to abuse drugs and alcohol, and to have health and mental health issues.” In some cases, victims have committed suicide.
Krista Hooten said her daughter did not talk about the extent to which she was bullied during sixth grade, and even when the attacks became physical, the teenager would “act like she was dealing with it and it wasn’t that big a deal.”
She said, “All I knew at that point was she didn’t want to go, to the point where (when) she would leave in the morning, she cried all the way to the bus stop.” Hooten talked to her daughter’s teachers and school administrators, but their only suggestion was that Kelsey should "find another group of friends.”
Now 16 and in 10th grade, Kelsey said she has been able to escape bullying since she started attending the Ohio Virtual Academy.
The academy now enrolls more than 12,600 students across the state, according to the Ohio Department of Education. While it may be effective as a way to protect students from bullying, it hasn't been so impressive when it comes to academics. It was given an “F” on the latest state report card, which measures what percent of students passed achievement and graduation tests. Only about 42 percent of its students graduate in four years, according to its latest report card.
The online school was created in 2006, and has grown as an option for bullied students. Students are given home computers, printers and a microscope and watch live videos and do chats with licensed teachers. The school also offers extracurricular activities, dances and other get-togethers for students.
Hard To Monitor Students Online
While bullying has always been an issue, experts say it's even more of a problem today because of the rise of activity online.
“Because of cyberbullying, students can’t escape it,” said Susan Davies, who trains school psychologists to recognize and deal with bullying. “It’s not something that’s just happening at school. They’re being targeted in their home when they’re not even around other kids. That has become really difficult to address at the school level because there’s kind of that question: Where does our influence end when it’s our students that we’re caring for throughout the day being bullied through the Internet?"
Davis added, “The kids are so savvy that they’re kind of escaping notice of the adults in their lives. As soon as we get on whatever the next hot social media site is and start monitoring kids," they move on. If teachers and parents are on Facebook, students say, "'Well, Facebook isn’t cool anymore, we’re going to move to Twitter. And we’re going to move to Instagram.' It’s hard for us to monitor them.”
The Ohio Virtual Academy is not immune to cyberbullying, but, according to Kristin Stewart, who is the head of the school, it has a zero-tolerance policy. The school has expelled and suspended students in the past, though not often.
The academy trains its teachers to look for signs of bullying and, Stewart said, bullying is brought to light sooner than usual "because the teachers are online with students.”
Move At Their Own Pace
Sometimes students who have been bullied take a while to regain their trust of other students, Stewart said. “But once they do, we have — especially in middle school and high school — we have blogs and Facebook where kids can go online and meet each other. They can approach getting back to school safely because they’re in their homes and they’re feeling safe. They can move at their own pace.”
Students also choose the school because they are struggling in certain subjects, because their families rely on them to work, because they have children of their own, or because they want to challenge themselves, Stewart said.
Hooten’s two other daughters also attend the Ohio Virtual Academy. Lexie, 14, started to give herself more time for her 20-hour-a-week dance commitment, while Hannah, 11, enrolled because she was missing many days of traditional school due to her asthma.
Next year, Kelsey will begin taking college courses for free through a state program.
Her mother said the change in her personality was almost immediate after she left public school.
“She was just happier again,” she said. “You just really underestimate" the effect bullying can have. "Even though she’s beautiful," the bullying got to her. "It’s amazing what peers can do when they’re telling you the opposite” of what's true.