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Parents depict culture of bullying at Greenleaf Friends Academy

Leslie Montgomery says her daughter endured physical bullying and hateful comments before a death threat landed in her school email inbox last month.
Credit: Idaho Press file photo
A photo outside Greenleaf Friends Academy in 2016.

One evening in mid-October, Leslie Montgomery said her daughter received a barrage of emails to her school email account. Montgomery said her daughter— a seventh grader at the Christian private school Greenleaf Friends Academy — had been the subject of bullying by fellow students since enrolling in the school last year.

Now, she had gotten a death threat.

The 12 emails, sent within minutes of each other from another student’s email account, say things such as, “you stupid idiot your not going to find out who i am,” and, “don’t tell the principale or i will go bazerk.” The writer had entered into another student’s email account to send the emails. The emails said they wanted that student to die.

The second-to-last message says, “This will happen to (the student’s name) I wish.” The final email contained a looping, 1 second gif of a stuffed Elmo, the character from Sesame Street, being shot in the head.

The incident was the culmination of an extremely difficult year for Montgomery’s daughter, Leslie Montgomery said. The events leading up to the email threat and school officials’ responses to such incidents illustrate a disconcerting culture around bullying and safety, according to Montgomery and other parents of former students at the school who spoke to the Idaho Press.

The principal of the school, Chris Browne, disputes this. Browne declined to be interviewed, but shared his thoughts in an emailed statement.

“There is not a pervasive culture of bullying,” Browne said in the email. “I have served at GFA for three months, and bullying is no more prevalent here than at my previous school,” Browne said. “We’ve been in school for three months, and in those three months, we’ve had three instances of bullying,” adding that the students are generally supportive and kind individuals.

“Still, in our commitment to be excellent in all that we do as a school to God’s glory, our school board passed an official anti-bullying policy at the November board meeting to be included in our Student-Parent Handbook.” He added that the school also hosted a Nampa Police Department officer to speak to students at a school assembly about bullying, including the seriousness of it, and “ways to identify and stop it.”

A YEAR OF BEING BULLIED 

At the beginning of the 2020-2021 school year, Leslie Montgomery and her husband opted to enroll their two children at Greenleaf Friends Academy.

The private school serves preschool through 12th grade students, according to its website. It was founded in Greenleaf in 1908 by followers of the “Friends Church,” the school’s website says. The church is a Protestant denomination, also known as the Quakers, known for their abolitionist opposition to slavery, pacifist stances on wars and support for more humane treatment of prison inmates.

Montgomery’s daughter befriended another girl in her class who allegedly began verbally and physically abusing her. The student would swear at Montgomery’s daughter at school, and grew jealous of her spending time with other friends, Leslie Montgomery said. She would push Montgomery’s daughter against lockers, Montgomery said.

The school’s counselor had a very “kiss-and-make-up” approach to the conflict, Montgomery said. She would sit the two students down in the same room to talk, but there were never consequences for the other student, Montgomery said. The bullying continued.

Montgomery’s daughter lost her joyful sense of self, the mother said. She dreaded going to school and would often call her mother asking to be picked up early. When Montgomery would pick her up, her daughter would sob in her arms.

Montgomery reached out to the principal at the time, Rod Lowe, in February 2021 to share her daughter’s experiences. The “saddest” part about the situation was that when other girls at the school found out about her daughter being bullied, they would attempt to comfort her by saying it had happened to them, too, and not to worry, because the student would eventually move on to someone else, Montgomery said.

“Is that what the students at Greenleaf have to look forward to? Being victims of (her)?” Montgomery wrote in an email to Lowe.

Lowe responded the next morning that he was “saddened” to hear of the incidents, and that he or one of his staff could have intervened sooner had they not been “left in the dark,” he said in an email that was shared with the Idaho Press. But her daughter had talked to the school counselor and another staff member several times, Montgomery replied.

Lowe, the former principal, could not be reached for comment on this story.

A few weeks later, Montgomery decided to homeschool her daughter with Greenleaf Friends’ curriculum rather than have her continue to face bullying, she said. But when she shared her intentions, other parents whose children had been bullied by the same student threatened to pull their kids as well, Montgomery said. Instead, the school opted for the alleged bully to be homeschooled for the remainder of the school year.

But the incidents didn’t end there. The alleged bully recruited a friend of hers who was still at the school to continue bullying in her place, Montgomery said. That student continued with the same incidents of swearing and hateful comments toward Montgomery’s daughter, Montgomery said.

Over the summer, Montgomery enrolled her daughter in trauma counseling.

In May, Montgomery wrote a letter to the school board asking them to implement an anti-bullying policy. The board had 30 days to respond to her inquiry by its own by-laws, but it didn’t, Montgomery said. In July, after attempting to get the contact information of other board members, and being denied, Montgomery opted to meet with the school’s incoming principal, Chris Browne.

When Montgomery asked Browne to implement an anti-bullying policy, he told her that his anti-bullying policy was the Golden Rule: treat others as you would want to be treated, Montgomery said.

“Yeah, that’s a great standard for how we should treat each other,” Montgomery told the Idaho Press. “But it doesn’t address bullying after it has been done.” There was no anti-bullying policy outlined in the school’s Student-Parent handbook, she said.

A NEW YEAR, SAME PROBLEMS 

The student who had bullied Montgomery’s daughter did not return to Greenleaf Friends Academy at the start of the new school year, but incidents against Montgomery’s daughter persisted. Toward the end of September, Montgomery’s daughter received an email from a friend’s school email account telling her that she should quit the volleyball team; the only reason she was on the team was because she was a “suck-up.” The student using the account stated their name in a separate email.

The school’s student Gmail email accounts are easy to break into because the school provides the same generic email password to every student, Montgomery said. If students aren’t encouraged to change the password, a student with nefarious intentions could readily enter into another’s account, she said.

Meanwhile, Montgomery had connected with two other parents whose children were experiencing bullying at the school. When Montgomery approached Browne about the email her daughter had received, he told her it could have been worse, Montgomery said.

The school could not determine definitively who sent the email, Montgomery said. She still wanted to meet with the board to push for an anti-bullying policy. The board arranged a special meeting for her to meet with a “steering committee” of three of the board’s nine members. But they remained uncommitted to implementing a formal bullying policy, Montgomery said.

A week later, her daughter received the series of emails wishing death on another student.

EMAIL AFTERMATH 

After the threat, Montgomery pulled her daughter and son from school, in part because of the threat, as well as a family medical emergency. But she was appalled to learn that the school was still operating as usual.

The two parents of the student threatened in the same emails were not told about the incident until 12 hours later, when their son was already at school, said the father of the student, who asked to go by Mr. Hall. Montgomery had reached out to them, the board, and the police, she said.

Mr. Hall said that in the public school district where he works, the parent of the threatened child would be informed and the child might be asked to stay home from school for a day while the school and local authorities assess the threat.

“In this day and age, you can’t take these things lightly,” Mr. Hall said. “It’s better to miss a day of school than to see what might happen.”

“Apparently (school officials) don’t feel that anything can happen there,” Mr. Hall said. “And I’m sure the people at the Boise mall thought it couldn’t happen there either,” Mr. Hall said, referencing the fatal shooting at Boise Town Square which left three people dead and four others injured at the end of October.

“Don’t get me wrong — I’m about the most pro-Second Amendment person there is, but when they’re that readily available and there’s a threat, you have to take it serious,” he said.

When Montgomery told Mr. Hall and his wife, Dee Hall, about the email incident, they went to the school to pick up all of their kids. Though Montgomery had called the police that morning, the police were not yet at the school, Hall said. When she and her husband arrived, they called the police to ask them to look into the incident, Hall said.

Browne, the school principal, sent an email at 5 p.m. on Oct. 20 that the Wilder Police had been at the school to investigate the email threat, but had determined that students were not in danger.

Montgomery was livid. How could everyone be safe if the student who sent the email was still at the school?

Montgomery had a parent-teacher conference for her son the next night. She knew she would not be returning her kids to the school until the threat was properly investigated, but she wanted to talk to the principal again.

Montgomery said when she pressed Browne, Browne said that he did think the emails received by Montgomery’s daughter were different and more severe than the previous bullying and hurtful emails she had endured, and that it was concerning that the person who sent it was still at the school. But when Montgomery asked how he planned to keep the school safe, he joked about installing metal detectors, she said.

Montgomery decided to email the parents of the school. She sent them the series of emails her daughter received, explained the school’s response, and described the bullying her daughter suffered over the last year.

Browne sent his own email to parents several days later, explaining his response to the threatening emails. He said he followed protocol as he knew it. When he learned of the series of emails, he pulled the student — the Halls’ son — from class and did a head count in all the middle school classrooms to ensure that students were accounted for, the email says. Once he had determined there was no immediate threat, he says he was going to reach out to the police to determine the origin of the threat, the email says.

Browne also expressed disappointment at Montgomery for having emailed parents directly about the situation.

“The inappropriate nature of the parent sending that out to most of the school community is both sad and frustrating,” Browne said in the email. “It was sent to cause division, discord, and harm to our school community.”

After Montgomery emailed the parents, she started getting responses from them. They described children demoralized by bullying: a first grader choked out by a fourth grader in the previous month. A child cutting. A child who was suicidal.

She’s now looking to develop legislation to institute more robust protections for children in private schools, she said.

VARYING SCHOOL SAFETY

The Idaho State Department of Education and the State Board of Education oversee different aspects of public school safety. But private schools do not fall under the jurisdiction of either entity.

This independence was attractive to the Hall family, at first. Not having to deal with COVID-19 restrictions and regulations was one of the reasons they chose to enroll their three children in the school almost two years ago, Dee Hall said.

But the family soon found themselves questioning the safety of the school. Their eldest son started being bullied shortly after starting there. Every day, he would come home with another account of verbal abuse, Hall said. When she tried to reach out to the principal at the time, Rod Lowe, she’d get the same answer: he’d talk to the bully. But the incidents continued. Her son still doesn’t sleep well to this day, she said.

Both of her boys also had issues with their emails getting entered into by other students, who would change their profile pictures to something inappropriate, she said. Though relatively harmless, it was still concerning someone could do that, she said. Cybersecurity at the school seemed nonexistent, she said.

For Idaho’s public schools, a few statutes exist to provide guidance about harassment and bullying policy, said Eric Studebaker, director of student engagement and safety coordination with the Idaho State Department of Education. One statute provides definitions of harassment, intimidation, and bullying.

Another statute says public schools are required to put in place a graduated series of consequences pertaining to bullying offenses, which can go up to expulsion of the student, Studebaker said. Public schools are also required to have an intervention and investigation process, which can include delineating in which instances they’ll involve law enforcement, Studebaker said.

Instances of bullying must be reported to the State Department of Education. And schools are required to provide “professional development” experiences, which can include educating students, staff, and parents about bullying prevention strategies, and when staff would intervene in a situation.

As these are guidelines, there can be variation between how different districts and schools implement these requirements, Studebaker said.

When it comes to preparing for an active shooter, public schools aren’t required to practice lockdowns or active shooter drills, said Mike Munger, manager of the School Safety Program for the Idaho Office of the State Board of Education. However, all public schools are required to develop an emergency operations plan, Munger said. Ideally, the plan created by a given school or district normalizes procedure for how staff should react in different hazard situations, he said.

When it comes to assessing a threat that comes into the school, there is no required way for a school to respond, Munger said. In general, they encourage a school’s threat assessment to involve trying understand a student who makes a threat versus a student who poses a threat, he said.

Other strategies, such as working with local law enforcement or other partners, can be useful, he said. Other factors, such as whether the person making the threat is known or unknown might affect how the threat is perceived, as well as the method by which it is delivered, such as through social media or directly to a school site, Munger said.

PARENTS RESPOND

After the email threat toward their youngest son, the Halls had initially planned to keep their children enrolled in the school. But they ultimately decided to pull their kids because they didn’t trust that the school was taking appropriate measures to investigate the incident, and their larger concerns about school safety and bullying.

“It’s really nothing that doesn’t happen at a public level,” Dee Hall said of the bullying. “But at this school, it’s not addressed.”

“Semester after semester, they’re churning out the same garbage because they don’t nip it in the bud.” Hall said she is also in the initial stages of researching what changes could be made to state law to require private schools to implement and enforce anti-bullying policies and other safety measures.

Greenleaf Friends Academy is working on a variety of measures to protect students, and has updated email accounts so that students can only send emails to other teachers using school accounts, according to an email obtained by the Idaho Press that said it was from Browne and the school’s board. And an email addressed to parents on Nov. 11 provided instructions for how students can change their email passwords.

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