SARANAC LAKE — School officials here issued an apology for not being aware of racial bullying at Petrova Middle School.
"We should have known that a child in our Middle School was being bullied, and we did not. We appeared indifferent, insensitive, and for this, we are deeply sorry. As educators, we can and will do better," the letter from School Board President Debra Lennon and Superintendent Gerald Goldman reads.
"Beginning immediately, we will review every protocol and policy related to bullying and harassment. We will examine and revise how we teach tolerance and diversity to our children.
"We cannot do this alone. We will need your help, and we will ask for it."
The letter, dated July 4, was published Wednesday on the Saranac Lake School Board Web page: www.saranaclakecs.org
The missive was written in response to verbal and physical assaults made by students against a 12-year-old child of color in fifth grade.
According to the girl's mother, Amy Oliveras, some students in sixth and eighth grade taunted her daughter, Adrienne, almost daily with racist slurs and cruel, sometimes physical acts, even going so far as to propose on a social networking site that the girl commit suicide.
On June 21, Adrienne left a backpack near a stairwell to go outside to play at school. The girl returned to find the bag open and papers torn up, three perfume bottles shattered, a calculator broken and pencils snapped in half.
Her deodorant was used to write "f--- ni--er" on the nearby cement in bold letters.
"This is the worst year my daughter has ever had," Oliveras told the Press-Republican last week, describing what has allegedly been nearly two years of harassment.
The girl stopped doing homework, started failing some classes and cried often, telling her family she felt like she didn't fit in.
Oliveras reported the incident to Saranac Lake Police Department, which opened a criminal investigation.
'WE ARE ALL DAMAGED'
The letter from the school states: "To the entire Saranac Lake community and to the Oliveras family, in particular, we apologize. We cannot undo this. We are all damaged here. Hate drives us apart, and hate is working hard at the moment."
Goldman said school staff started reviewing policy at 9 a.m. Tuesday, and began looking at methods to teach tolerance.
Programs are widely available to open a discussion on hate, respect and civility.
"We're exploring all of those. I've talked with several folks about different programs," Goldman told the Press-Republican Wednesday.
"But, obviously, that's an inoculation. We need a blood transfusion. This has to be a systemic thing. How do we weave this on a daily basis into our school programs?
"This is a process. This is a bigger challenge than making sure we do a better job in seeing these issues are reported to us."
Goldman said staff and administration got out all of the school's policies on harassment and bullying.
"We looked at the student Code of Conduct to make sure we are clear with our kids about what is expected of them.
"We reviewed the reporting process to make sure we don't have our hands over our ears.
"We talked at length about bullying, taunting and harassment to see how we can do a better job about promoting disclosure."
The school will begin working with teachers to gain better control over the non-classroom culture of the school — the playgrounds, the school bus, the hallways, Goldman said.
"We've got to become a little bit more cognizant of what that culture is going to look like. I said it in the letter, and I mean it: We really are a better place than this."
At the School Board meeting Tuesday night, two residents spoke out, urging officials to address bullying at school.
Jon Vinograd, who ran unsuccessfully for School Board this year, asked for a time line for "when you will review how we teach tolerance. Really what you are looking for is protection of a child."
'What is going to be done'
Resident Arden Kleffmann asked the School Board to respond clearly to questions: "What is going to be done, when is it going to be done, and how is it going to be done?"
Lennon said they are listening to parents and the community.
"We do some things right; others we don't do right."
She said their objective is to have no further incidents like these.
E-mail Kim Smith Dedam at: firstname.lastname@example.org