KALAMA – Parents and students say Kalama High School leaders could have done more before two students were arrested on Monday for alleged threats and assaults, including an incident that allegedly involved hate speech and a fight that sent a student to the hospital.

Days after a 17-year-old student was allegedly kicked in the head during a fight with students who hurled anti-gay slurs at them, dozens of students walked out of school on Monday in response to what they say is a culture of homophobia. , racism and violence at school.

The hate speech protest prompted a threat of gun violence by another student against the protesters, which police took seriously enough to put the school under lockdown. Police then arrested the student who made the threat and the student who allegedly caused the concussion.

The Kalama School District acknowledged the incidents and sent support to students who walked out on Monday. District communications manager Nick Shanmac said the district legally could not comment on details of the fight or the disciplinary action taken against the students.

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“I think recent events have really, in a positive way, highlighted that and encouraged students to speak up,” Shanmac said.

“It was a daily thing”

Natasha Wheeler moved last year from Minnesota with her child Jesse, 17, for a fresh start in a beautiful place.

Jesse, the student who suffered a concussion after the fight, has a different last name than his mother and asked that it not be used in the story to protect himself from possible retaliation from others. students.

Shortly after moving, Wheeler said he noticed a change.

Jesse told her that some students at Kalama High used racial and homophobic slurs, often directed at other students. Screenshots provided by Wheeler from social media show that someone had drawn a swastika on the classroom whiteboard.

Jesse started an LGBTQ club at Kalama High School that raised their profile among students, sophomore Araylia Martinez said, adding that Jesse’s outspoken support for gay rights seemed to make him a target of harassment.

What was more concerning, Wheeler said, was that she felt school staff didn’t seem to be addressing the red flags reported by students and parents.

“It’s been a daily thing, and it all goes back to last year,” Wheeler said. “I’ve been saying to the school and the administration for a long time, ‘Something bad is going to happen.'”

Veronica Child recently moved from Vancouver to Kalama to build a better life in a small town with her daughter.

“At first we really liked it, they seemed so welcoming,” Child said.

The comfort did not last long for the Child. On the first day of school, Child’s daughter overheard students using homophobic slurs and asked them not to, soon finding herself being bullied.

The bullying escalated to the point where Child decided to withdraw her daughter.

The child attended Monday’s strike, saying she hoped the protest would bring her peers closer together and send a message to the school administration.

“I thought if there were any parents there, they had to listen,” Child said.

What looked like rising tensions came to a head on June 6, Martinez said. She witnessed the fight that sent Jesse to the hospital.

That day, Jesse was waiting for the school bus after class with a classmate when a pair of students targeted Jesse’s companion, according to a grievance Wheeler filed with the Kalama School District.

One of them said out loud, “There are too many f——-s in this school.”

Jesse kicked one of the students but missed. A fight broke out between Jesse and the two students, and Jesse ended up on the ground, according to Wheeler’s grievance.

Wheeler said one of the students who harassed Jesse then kicked Jesse in the head with what she believed to be steel-toed boots.

Wheeler said that to his knowledge, no police or medical personnel were called to the scene.

Principal quickly called Wheeler, saying that Jesse had been taken to the office after the fight and was acting strange.

Jesse is on the autism spectrum and Wheeler initially said she thought the day at school had just been tough. When she spoke to Jesse on the phone, Wheeler knew something was wrong.

“He was just repeating himself, repeating the same things, he was crying,” Wheeler said. “He wasn’t acting like himself.”

They took Jesse to the emergency room, where doctors diagnosed them with a concussion, Wheeler said.

Kalama Police Chief Ralph Herrera said police reviewed the video and took statements from witnesses to the scuffle to determine if the violence was motivated by biases related to the sexuality or identity of the fight. gender.

Officers found probable cause to arrest one of the students, a minor who could face criminal charges of assault and hate crimes.

“In five years, we haven’t had an incident that met the statutory elements of a hate crime,” Herrera said, adding that the school deals with student conduct violations independently of the Department of police.

Wheeler said she thought the school knew parents had expressed concern that homophobia, racism and bullying in general had become a problem.

“I’ve been waiting for this call for a while,” Wheeler said.

Students walk out in protest

Wheeler reported the incident to the American Civil Liberties Union and the Washington State Civil Rights Division. She asked a lawyer from the local PFLAG chapter to attend the meetings with the school. She filed a complaint with the Kalama Police Department.

“From a law enforcement perspective, violations motivated by hate and bias will not be tolerated,” Chief Herrera said. “When they are reported to law enforcement, we will conduct a full and thorough investigation.”

Herrera described Kalama High’s administration as “super cooperative and willing to facilitate our need to establish all the facts.”

What students and parents view as inaction is what Kalama School District officials have said is their legal duty not to disclose any disciplinary action taken against a student, a said Shanmac.

“We’re trying to address that and do a better job of asking students, ‘Given this legal limitation, how can we give you better information about what’s going on?'” Shanmac said. “Because it’s frustrating, and we totally understand that, when we have to say, ‘Sorry, we can’t let you know.'”

The perceived inaction led Jesse to organize the school strike on Monday in front of the high school.

The students distributed multicolored flags representing one of the identities of the LGBTQ spectrum. At least two dozen students held signs above their heads, asking the school to commit to its zero tolerance policy.

Sophomore Kaydance Wooldridge said the fight between Jesse and another student represented a broader culture of bullying at Kalama High that was ignored.

“There wasn’t a lot of punishment,” Wooldridge said. “We want to see some action.”

Martinez said she joined the walkout to show solidarity with her peers, many of whom she says are harassed almost daily.

“There’s been a lot of fighting lately, and we can’t feel safe until we see the school doing something,” Martinez said.

As protesters stood in the parking lot ahead of this rainy morning, a student told a school administrator he heard a peer uttering threats of violence against the crowd, Herrera said.

Herrera said the 15-year-old student told a peer he wanted to fire a machine gun at the group of students.

The teenager left the campus and the police put the school under lock and key. Herrera said that given that the student left campus during school hours, police considered the threat credible.

“That was enough to warrant the action that was taken and, at the time, it was a disruption of school functions,” Herrera said.

They located the teenager and, through interviews with parents, determined that he did not have access to firearms at home. Still, police have found probable cause to arrest him, with the charges currently being reviewed by the Cowlitz County District Attorney’s Office.

School district explores solutions

Jesse said the school invited students to an assembly last week to talk about bullying and harassment on campus. Jesse said the school asked every student to pledge against bigotry and promise to report bullying.

For Jesse, who is still recovering from his concussion, the feeling came too late.

“They tried to avoid this until the last minute,” Jesse said.

In a letter to families Monday evening, the school district explained the lockdown situation, including the verbal threat against protesters that triggered it.

The district said in its letter that it “stands with students who demand a school environment free from harassment, abuse and violence, and we are proud of them for helping to move the conversation forward on the school safety”.

Shanmac said the Kalama School District is working to hire more mental health professionals. Next school year, Kalama High will have a new dean hired to build better relationships with students.

The district has also expanded anonymous reporting options and is working to increase communication between the school and parents, Shanmac said.

“If students are saying, ‘We think this is a trend’, then schools should listen to them. … We have to believe them,” Shanmac said.

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