Bullying & Discipline Discussed During Polk County Public Schools Superintendent Forum
by James Coulter
As the mother of a student at Frostproof Middle-Senior High School, Jennifer Hutto felt impatient about the lack of response to her concerns about her son’s safety and the safety of the other students. So, she took her concerns directly to the new superintendent during his community forum hosted at Winter Haven on Thursday evening.
“I am here to say enough is enough,” Hutto said. “I am here for the safety and wellbeing of our kids and to make sure they are taken priority. There have been countless situations ignored and shoved aside by our current administration…So many questions unanswered and concerns, so many it is above my paygrade…Too many bullied kids that are now taking it into their own hands because they have absolutely nobody to talk to in the school system.”
Her biggest concern was a male high school student who posed an immediate threat to the other students. The young man had recently been arrested twice: first for bringing a knife to school, and again two days later for running down a female student with his car, Hutto explained. He had also been charged with sexual harassment and stalking but never convicted, she said.
For Hutto, this was not the first time the school failed to heed the concerns of students and parents. Two years ago, a male student was beaten to death by his bully. Yet, despite the young man being bullied constantly, the school did nothing to hear his concerns until it was far too late, Hutto said.
“The staff of the school and the school board are entrusted with our most precious gifts, which are our children, yet so many concerns go unanswered, so many calls do not get returned, and each time the accountability is passed off to the next Polk County employee,” she said.
Fredrick Heid, Superintendent of Polk County Schools, was disheartened about the issues Frostproof High School had been facing recently. He assured Hutto that the school system was doing everything in its power to set things right.
“As far as the administration being unresponsive to you, that is unacceptable,” he said. “We will absolutely address those things. Our primary responsibility is the health and safety of our students.”
Bullying and discipline were some of the topics discussed during a forum held by Polk County Public Schools on Thursday evening. Hosted at the AdventHealth Fieldhouse in Winter Haven, the forum allowed residents to voice their concerns about the school system and the direction they wanted to see it go.
Superintendent Heid, who obtained his position ten weeks ago, has been hosting these forums throughout the county to gain such community feedback so that he and his staff could formulate a strategic plan for the school system. In addition, he wants to acquaint himself with the people and allow them an opportunity to hear their thoughts and ideas.
A major topic of contention brought up that evening was the current situation at Frostproof High School, where a student had been arrested twice. One high school senior expressed her concerns about him that evening, as he had harassed her and other female students with allegedly no repercussions from the school.
The young man had been transferred from Auburndale, where he was previously accused of sexual harassment, the young girl said. She told the superintendent how she had been pursued by this man into the bathroom, chased down for her phone number, stalked on social media, and witnessed several other girls chased off of campus, and yet nothing was done about him.
“As a student, you are always told that you are given a voice. If that is the case, then why is it that my school has stopped listening to me?” she asked. “Why is it that our problems are pushed aside like it is nothing? This boy was a serious threat…My question is, when are you guys going to listen to us and start taking us seriously?”
Superintendent Heid assured the young lady her concerns were being heard. In the next two weeks, he plans on hosting a meeting at the school to listen to student concerns.
“I feel horrible about what has happened here,” he said. “The assumption that nothing is being done…is not true. There is a lot being done. Law enforcement is involved. You are being involved. We are involved. I am directly involved. And I have made my thoughts and opinions known about what my expectations are moving forward.”
Superintendent Heid has been hosting community forums across the county this month to help gain feedback for a strategic plan to improve schools. The goals of his project are to improve student outcomes, develop great teachers and leaders, engage family and community, provide equitable and efficient use of resources, and create a curriculum to “develop the whole child.”
Heid and his staff will collect the responses, share summaries with their board in November, and work on the strategic plan throughout the remaining months. He expects the board to adopt his plan by February officially.
At last Thursday’s forum, he offered his presentation and allowed time for questions and answers. Several dozen residents participated that evening and offered questions and raised concerns about everything ranging from teacher response time to e-mails to the availability of bilingual resources for teachers and students.
Several concerns were raised about student behavior and discipline. Heid assured them that the school system would do everything in its power to address those concerns. He also reminded everyone that the development of students was a shared responsibility of parents and the community, and that the burden should not solely lie with the school.
With Polk County being the second fastest-growing county in the nation, its student population is expected to likewise grow by another 50 thousand students in the next 10 to 15 years. Current growth will not only provide better possibilities for students, but it has already provided better possibilities for staff. Heid boasted that bus drivers have received pay raises and that teachers and paraeducators could expect similar raises due to extra property taxes being provided to the schools.
Heid shared many of his intentions for the school system. With the county growing, the potential for innovation will also grow, and the school system needs to adapt to these coming changes. One proposal he suggested was to better collaborate with local businesses to provide vocational training.
One proposal would be to invite private businesses onto high school campuses to set up shop. They could run their business on-site while also opening their facility to students to provide them with training and instruction, as well as potentially offer them future employment.
“That is the incentive for students because they know there is something waiting for them, not just the chance or the opportunity that the job may be there, but a guarantee that it will be there,” Heid said.
Upcoming community forums will be hosted at the following dates and locations. All meetings will start at 6 p.m.:
Sep. 20: Presbyterian Church in the Highlands
1010 Lake Miriam Drive, Lakeland
Sep. 21: Lake Eva Event Center
799 Johns Ave., Haines City
Sep. 23: Dream Center of Lakeland
635 W. 5th St., Lakeland
Sep. 27: Virtual Forum
Broadcast live on Facebook (@polkcountypublicschools)
For more information, visit: http://polkschoolsfl.com/communityconversations