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Williamsville district under fire on reply to bullying

Parents of Williamsville students and the School Board president say the district's recent actions to address bullying in the wake of Jamey Rodemeyer's suicide are late in coming.

"I don't believe the district is dealing with this situation in an ideal manner," said board President Michael J. Littman. "The impression I get, and the impression the community gets, is the school district is not doing enough to address the issue."

In a message to parents posted to the district's website Monday, officials said they will review the district's practices regarding the handling of bullying incidents. They also are in the process of scheduling school meetings to address parent concerns.

"We are planning to meet with parent groups at each of our middle and high schools starting next week," said district spokeswoman Rita M. Wolff. "We're taking this extremely seriously. We already partner with parents, and we're looking to strengthen that."

But parents say they aren't thrilled that the district waited until this week to actively respond to parent concerns. Until Monday, they said, the only communication that some parents received was a standard, four-paragraph letter from the principal of Williamsville North High School stating that Jamey, a 14-year-old freshmen, had died.

"I just think the school really blew it," said Rebecca C. Rohan, who has two children in middle school. "This was an opportunity for the district to give more than lip service to their anti-bullying programs."

Jamey killed himself Sept. 18 after chronicling a history of bullying and harassment in middle and high school. His case has received worldwide attention, and parents, peers and advocates in the gay community have since been on a mission to keep other teens from suffering the same fate.

Williamsville School District leaders, however, have kept a relatively low profile during this time and have been accused of being reactive instead of proactive.

> 'What response?'

"What response?" complained one parent, who asked not to be identified out of concern for district backlash. "There's been no response."

The mother, a school counselor in another district, said one of her own children had been bullied in Williamsville schools. While middle school counselors tried to be helpful, she said, "There were no repercussions for the kids who were bullying her, ever."

In Monday's letter to parents, Superintendent Scott G. Martzloff stated that Jamey's death "highlights the pervasive problem of bullying and cyber bullying. In Williamsville, we are actively reviewing all current processes related to bullying."

Martzloff said the district would be meeting with administrators, mental health staff and faculty to review procedures and reinforce the importance of intervening in bullying incidents.

Martzloff was unavailable to comment Tuesday, Wolff said. In addition, only two of the board's nine members were reachable to comment late Tuesday afternoon despite messages left for all of them.

Wolff described the soon-to-be-scheduled meetings with parents as one way to make sure parents know about the programs and interventions already in place to support students.

Littman, who spoke with The Buffalo News on Monday, said he convened a brief closed-door meeting of the School Board with Martzloff at 5 p.m. Friday. The media were not told of the meeting in advance.

The board is responsible for ensuring the safety and welfare of all students, Littman said, and he and other board members urged Martzloff to respond more actively to parent concerns.

"We've asked Scott to deal with these issues," he said, "and hopefully, over the short term, these things will be dealt with."

He and board member Patricia M. Losito said they want more information from the district about how bullying is handled. Losito said she believes that a needs assessment should be conducted at every grade level.

"My son was bullied, so I'm sensitive to the issue," she said. "It's very upsetting."

Rohan and other parents who have contacted The News said many schoolchildren beyond Williamsville North are talking about the issue, as are many parents throughout the district. But school staff members are not leading such discussions, when they should be capitalizing on a teachable moment as part of their anti-bullying programs, the parents said.

"All the kids were talking about it," said Rohan, whose daughter at Mill Middle School came home last week with "No H8" -- No Hate -- written on the palm of her hand. "As a district, I trust these people to take care of my kids during the day. I trust them to do what's right."

She added, "For something that was this big, that affected kids all over the district and affected everybody -- I mean this got national exposure -- for them to pretend to the kids that this didn't happen just blows my mind. This is the district's chance to join the national discussion and really have something to contribute, so it's too bad they're trying to avoid it instead."

Martzloff has previously said he doesn't want to discuss Jamey's case because he wants to be sensitive to the Rodemeyer family.

"I just want parents and students and communities to know that safety is our No. 1 priority," he said last week. "We will do everything we can to keep students safe at all times."

Amherst police have pledged to determine whether any harassment charges may be warranted in association with Jamey's case. A spokesman said Tuesday that the Rodemeyer family will be interviewed later this week.

> Sister was targeted

As first reported in The News on Saturday, tensions flared Thursday night at Williamsville North during football homecoming festivities. Police were called to address allegations that at least one student told Jamey's 16-year-old sister, Alyssa, that she was happy Jamey killed himself.

Police Chief John C. Askey had said a high school parent called police that evening to report malicious words being hurled at Alyssa, who is a junior at the school.

In the original complaint, a parent told police she understood that some students made harassing statements "suggesting that they're glad that Jamey's dead."

When uniformed, off-duty police officers at the event came to investigate, however, the alleged confrontation was over and two different sets of students were accusing the other side of inciting conflict, Askey said.

Police are trying to determine what words were exchanged, the chief said, adding that this information may help with the broader investigation.

email: stan@buffnews.com

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