Parents of Bullied Webster Groves Teen Speak Out
Chris and Michelle Wilhelm say their daughter endured months of bullying at Hixson Middle School while school administrators and district officials failed to help with the situation.
The family of a Webster Groves teen who was bullied for months at Hixson Middle School says their pleas for help with the situation from school officials resulted in nothing but broken promises.
Sydney Wilhelm and her parents, Chris and Michelle, recently shared their story with KSDK-TV after being approached by KSDK reporter Talia Kaplan. They told Kaplan the Webster Groves School District made a lot of promises, but didn't come through on any of them.
In an interview with Webster Groves Patch, the Wilhelms said their daughter Sydney was bullied/cyber-bullied for almost two years by a group of girls at Hixson. The group sent harassing texts, called at all hours of the night and stalked the Wilhelm's house, the Wilhelms said. They also threw food at Sydney in the school's cafeteria, harassed her on Facebook and posted a mock video of her on YouTube.
Michelle Wilhelm said the bullying began in December 2009 when Sydney was in seventh grade. She said her and her husband knew there was a problem between Sydney and another student, but weren't aware of the extent of it.
Around March 11, 2010, Sydney was called into the counselor's office at the school. The counselor told Sydney it was because she had told someone to "shut up" on Facebook.
After hearing about the incident, the Wilhelms say they called the school several times to schedule a meeting with the counselor. After repeated calls, they finally met with the counselor and the school's assistant principal on March 17.
Cathy Vespereny, a spokesperson for the district, said there is no official policy on when school officials must return a call, but there is the expectation that a call be returned in a timely fashion.
Regarding the March 17 meeting, Chris Wilhelm said, "We were told the real reason we were there was because they were fearing for Sydney's safety. If they were fearing for her safety, they should have called me immediately."
The Wilhelms told Patch that during the meeting, the counselor and assistant principal basically "asked us what we wanted them to do about the situation and implied we should have been monitoring Sydney's Facebook usage more closely."
The Wilhelms said the assistant principal then tried to abruptly end the meeting, then came back and sat on top of her desk looking over them and said there was nothing more to talk about.
They left and immediately went to the district's administrative offices. They met with Superintendent Sarah Riss and Gayle Hennessey, who was serving as the district's director of student services.
Chris Wilhelm said that neither Riss or Hennessey knew anything about what was going on, nor did Hixson Principal Jason Heisserer, even though district policy requires that bullying first be reported first to the principal of the building.
Vespereny said the situation was in fact reported to Heisserer by the assistant principal. She also said that according to the district's policy, an assistant principal is considered to be a building principal.
"The meeting with the superintendent and Hennessey was impromptu," Verspereny said. "We trust our schools to handle situations, which was why it (the Wilhelm's situation) did not first go to the superintendent."
Additionally, the Wilhelms said that Riss and Hennessey were not even aware of their exact policies as it pertained to Internet activity. However, Vespereny said both Riss and Hennessey know the policies regarding bullying and Internet activity.
During the March 17 meeting, Riss and Hennessey assured the Wilhelms the situation would be investigated and appropriate actions taken.
In an April 29, 2010, letter to the Wilhelms, Riss wrote: "The specific student behavior you shared with us was addressed and appropriate consequences issued shortly after our meeting."
The Wilhelms claim the student was not disciplined.
Vespereny said the student behavior was addressed and consequences issued, although she couldn't share what the specific consequences were because the district can't comment on specific students.
In the letter, Riss also outlined some of the measures the school and district were implementing regarding anti-bullying. (See attached PDF of the letter for details.) However, the Wilhelms claim to date, none of the actions have been instituted.
District officials disagree and outlined a vast array of actions taken specific to Hixson on anti-bullying education, awareness, prevention and counseling services. (See related article: We Take Bullying Very Seriously, Webster School Officials Say)
The Wilhelms said despite the actions outlined in the April 29 letter, the bullying continued. In January 2011, Sydney was admitted for psychiatric outpatient services. She missed 12 days of school.
In order for Sydney to return to Hixson, her doctors required that the school be a safe environment. The Wilhelms said the principal promised it would be and even came up with a re-entry plan. However, Chris Wilhelm said it was not a safe environment and his daughter was still suffering.
The Wilhelms reached out to Tina Meier, who started the Megan Meier Foundation after her daughter Megan committed suicide five years ago after being cyber-bullied. Meier travels the country giving presentations to students and other groups on bullying and cyber-bullying.
In early February 2011, Meier met with district officials and the Wilhelms. She offered several free services, one of which involved spearheading a non-confrontational group meeting with the students involved to resolve and work through the issues. She also offered to arrange a group assembly on bullying, as well as breakout sessions with student leaders afterward to promote anti-bullying.
Meier, who normally charges for her services said, "The Wilhelms were very frustrated when they first came to me, and I thought it was worth me helping for free."
Meier said she also recommended the Missouri/Southern Illinois office of the Anti-Defamation League (ADL) to district officials in case they didn't want to work with her specific foundation. She said district officials contacted her shortly after the meeting saying it was still considering its options, but never called her back.
Vespereny said that while the district valued having time to consult with Meier, it opted to use local, licensed trained professionals for counseling.
While what happened to Sydney can't be changed, the Wilhelms say they are still concerned that enough isn't being done at Hixson regarding bullying and cyberbullying.
"It tarnishes Webster school's image, but safety needs to be the most important factor," Chris Wilhelm said. "That's what we're concerned about, especially since we have kids who will be attending Hixson eventually."
The Wilhelms said that since Sydney started her freshman year at Webster Groves High School, the situation has improved. They said that high school officials have been very proactive about separating the girls and mitigating potential situations.
Vespereny said administrators at Hixson and the high school are continuing to work together to ensure a smooth transition from one school to the other.