‘You’re not alone’

‘You’re not alone’

Family shares their bullying story to help others

NORTH SMITHFIELD – “She’s very smart, very witty and humorous and very passionate. She wants to open a bakery when she’s older. She doesn’t know it, but she’s my hero.”

These are the words Elizabeth Jalette, a senior at North Smithfield High School, used to describe her younger sister, Emily, in a letter addressed to the School Committee in March. The letter, read to committee members by the girls’ mother, Liane, represented a touching moment of sibling camaraderie from two girls both fiercely independent but loyal to each other as they prepare for the next steps in their academic lives. But what followed was difficult to listen to as Elizabeth described the bullying her younger sister had experienced at North Smithfield Middle School as seen through an older sister’s eyes.

“My sister and I are like any other siblings – we fight, we yell, but at the end of the day, we are best friends,” she wrote. “While being so similar, we as a family pride ourselves in being independent and not following the status quo. But it seems that while I never faced external issues for my independent nature, my sister faced enough for the both of us.”

The conversation was part of a larger discussion on bullying that played out over several School Committee meetings in recent months. For many North Smithfield families, bullying is a distant concept in a district that prides itself on high test scores, dedicated faculty and close-knit relationships among students. Liane Jalette, the girls’ mother and a former School Committee member, acknowledged that positive environment and told The Valley Breeze that her older daughter, Elizabeth, never experienced bullying during her time in North Smithfield schools.

But for her younger daughter, currently in 8th grade, that ideal world of close friendships with classmates and bittersweet middle school graduation ceremonies never materialized. Instead, she said, Emily experienced verbal bullying both in school and online from early on in 6th grade that worsened as middle school went on. School administrators, she said, responded swiftly to the family’s concerns, but the situation continued to worsen as Emily moved into 7th grade.

“It just changed her. She withdrew from everything,” said Jalette.

The situation took a toll on the family and they worried over their daughter’s mental health. Among the types of bullying her daughter experienced, said Jalette, was online bullying over texting and social media, where classmates would post photos making fun of her daughter’s appearance. Sometimes, she found her daughter firing back online with comments of her own. It was a horrific experience, said Jalette, one that continued as a daily occurrence.

“When you’re constantly told certain things, after a while you start to believe it,” she said.

Through it all, she said, teachers and school administrators responded appropriately and took action when the family reported the incidents to the school, but the situation continued to worsen as other students became aware of the response. Eventually, she said, the family stopped reporting incidents in order to avoid retaliation by other students. Jalette, a school administrator in Massachusetts, emphasized she doesn’t fault the district for what happened to her daughter but instead blamed state mandates that standardize a reporting system throughout the state. Parents, she said, also need to be better educated on the interactions their children could be having with other students, including online.

“It can’t be something that’s not talked about. It has to be something that everybody is aware (of) and yes, it happens, and even in North Smithfield,” she said.

School administrators could not confirm or comment on the Jalette family’s experience due to concerns about student confidentiality. John Lahar, principal at North Smithfield Middle School, told The Breeze that the school takes bullying very seriously and while he does not believe it is a widespread problem in the middle school the school’s small size helps staff respond to any reported incidents immediately and thoroughly.

“I think we take it very seriously. We handle it in depth with a lot of detail,” he said.

Throughout the state, he said, school districts’ definitions of bullying tend to include three key factors: an action must be repetitive, targeted and involve an imbalance of power. The school also addresses any incidents of unkind speech and treats online bullying the same way they do in-school bullying.

“That can have an impact on how that kid feels about being in school with those kids, and we want every kid to feel safe and comfortable,” he said.

On Monday, the school initiated the first in a series of focus group meetings intended to improve communication on topics of concern for parents, including bullying. The focus group will also cover topics that affect middle schools students today such as vaping and online safety. Lahar said the focus group is expected to result in additional educational opportunities for parents on how to better connect with their children.

Supt. Michael St. Jean acknowledged that bullying exists in the schools and some incidents may go unreported. The schools, he said, try to maintain a standard of behavior through their disciplinary system and also have programs to supports students’ social-emotional health embedded within the health curriculum. The small size of North Smithfield Schools, he added, contributes to a very personal environment that can be both positive and negative for students.

“One of the benefits of being a small district and a smaller school is that everybody knows everybody. That’s good and bad,” he said.

William Connell, the School Committee member who initiated the discussion on bullying, told fellow members he raised the issue in order to bring bullying to the committee’s attention in a district where it can sometimes otherwise go unnoticed. While he was speaking with families during the campaign season, he said, the subject came up as a topic of concern for some parents.

“My point in putting this on the agenda is for us to recognize as a School Committee that it does happen. And a lot of the time, we don’t see it,” he said.

For the Jalette family, the issue ultimately led to a decision to leave the district, with Emily leaving North Smithfield Middle School after 7th grade. At her new school, Jalette said, her daughter is happy and has regained the confidence she had lost over the previous two years. Her older daughter, meanwhile, is preparing to graduate from North Smithfield High School, a school her younger sister does not plan to attend next year.

Jalette said that by speaking out, she hoped to acknowledge the issue exists in the community and encourage parents to pay attention to their children’s activities, including those that could constitute bullying toward other students. She also had a message for families who might be experiencing similar situations.

“I felt I needed to speak not just for her, but for any other family that has this going on,” she said. “It’s not right, but you’re not alone and you will come through it on the other side.”

Comments

it is and will always be, present at jobs, schools, neighborhoods...you have to build a tough skin. Better easier said than done, but it's true. Adults can be even worse than kids. I keep more to myself as a result of it too. But given time, the people worth your time, do come around and see you for the wonderful person you are through all of it.

Walk away and report it!