Lisa Love vividly recalls watching the documentary film “Bully” with her sixth grade daughter in the fall of 2013. About halfway through the film, which features the experiences of young bullying victims, Love says her daughter broke down sobbing, saying, “This is what my life at FAIR is like.” Love knew then that she had to pull her daughter from the Fine Arts Interdisciplinary Resource School (FAIR School).
According to Love, during two years at FAIR, her daughter was a victim of escalating incidents of bullying. In fact, Love says that it wasn’t until the bullying veered into sexual harassment that the school’s administrators got involved and investigated what was happening to her daughter. The lead perpetrator of the bullying was suspended, but Love says that didn’t solve the problem. The “peripheral” kids remained at the school, and told everyone else to ignore her daughter. Seeing the film “Bully,” in which some young bullying victims commit suicide, sealed Love’s decision to remove her child from FAIR.
For Love, the school’s administration never properly took on or handled the bullying her daughter experienced. She recalls demanding a “face-to-face” meeting with FAIR principal Kevin Bennett, who Love says was simply “never around.” Bennett, in Love’s estimation, was “obtuse, pompous, and inept” when it came to dealing with both the bullying and with her, as a parent. Love says this poor leadership style is further reflected in what she says is FAIR’s weak bullying policy, which has created a culture where students feel they will not be held responsible for their behavior. Love says her daughter is now in a new school, and, while she misses the excellent art classes she had at FAIR, she says her daughter is much happier and feels safer now.
FAIR, which is part of the West Metro Education Program (WMEP), has two campuses—one in Crystal, for grades 4-8, and one in downtown Minneapolis for grades K-3 and 9-12. The two schools share one principal, Kevin Bennett, and are under the jurisdiction of Superintendent Dan Jett, who has resigned and will leave his position on June 30. Both Jett and Bennett were reprimanded for various incidents in 2013. (For information about current parent and teacher complaints about Bennett, see: Fear, danger, poor leadership cited as FAIR School parents, teachers demand firing of principal.)
Love says that Bennett and Jett “don’t see bullying as a problem,” and just give “lip service” to parents about it. Former FAIR parent Christina Wendt , who recently pulled her sixth grade daughter out of the school, has a similar story to tell about bullying at the school, and troubling responses from Bennett and Jett.
Wendt says her daughter, started at FAIR in fifth grade and was “immediately bullied by another girl,” but that both she and her husband advised their daughter to just deal with it, or ignore it as best she could. The following year, however, as she began sixth grade, they noticed increasing changes in her behavior. She became “very unhappy and unfocused,” Wendt says, and the school suggested the girl perhaps had ADHD and should consider medication.
Wendt says they gave their daughter time to “turn herself around,” and that the girl seemed to be doing better. Soon, however, it was clear she was engaging in inappropriate behavior. When Wendt questioned her daughter about her actions, she said, “I’m purposely acting out so that you will get me out of this school.”
Finally, in May of this year, Wendt says her sixth grade daughter came home crying from the bus after school. When asked what was wrong, she told her mother and siblings that her picture was up on an Instagram site called “FAIR’s ugliest.” A fifth grade boy had showed it to her on the bus, on the way home from school.
Wendt says she looked at the Instagram site and noticed that it had the school’s logo on it, along with pictures of two other students, and so she felt she needed to call the school right away to let them know. She called and spoke with someone at the school who showed sympathy to her, asked how her daughter was doing, and said that principal Kevin Bennett would call the Wendts immediately the next day.
The next morning, Bennett did not call, but Wendt says her daughter’s teacher did, expressing regret and showing the “most empathy we have seen from the school.” She heard nothing all day from the principal and in the meantime began looking up state policies on bullying. Finally, with no official word from a school administrator, Wendt sent a mass email to “everyone who has worked with or taught [her daughter]” at FAIR, including Kevin Bennett. In the email, Wendt says she included screen shots of the “FAIR’s ugliest” site, and also sent along the state bullying policy and the attorney general’s recommendations for what to do when bullying takes place.
Finally, Bennett called her, just as Wendt says she was hearing about a girl from Blaine who had killed herself after being cyberbullied. Wendt describes the conversation with Bennett as “very strange,” as he seemed to just sit silently on the phone before finally saying, “So, about the email.” He then told her that he had contacted the school’s IT department, who told him “there was nothing they can do about it,” and that he couldn’t do anything because the bullying “didn’t occur on FAIR equipment.”
Wendt says she became increasingly frustrated during the phone call, and pointed out to Bennett that the school’s logo was being used on the “FAIR’s ugliest” site. She says he replied, “I don’t own that,” and that he seemed not to care at all about the bullying. Her son was there with her as she was speaking with Bennett, and he got on the phone to read the school district’s bullying policy to him. It was at that point, Wendt says, that Bennett hung up on them.
Wendt says she then insisted on meeting with Superintendent Jett because, while she felt her own daughter was a strong kid, she was concerned for the other students featured on the “FAIR’s ugliest” site. When she and her daughter showed Jett the Instagram site, Jett asked, “Where do you look at these?”
Her sixth-grade daughter told the superintendent that FAIR students access the internet, using a staff password that had been passed around, during their classes, as well as during recess and lunch. Wendt says Jett immediately called the IT department and had them change the staff password and send an email to all staff, saying the new email should not be shared.
However, Wendt says Jett never cited or discussed the school’s bullying policy, which, according to her, says bullying will be dealt with if it is impacting a student’s education. She says she told Wendt that her daughter would not be returning to the school until the situation was resolved, and that she in fact never did go back to FAIR.
No one called her from the school, according to Wendt—not a school counselor or psychologist, for example—until the school nurse called wondering where her daughter was. The girl was being marked down as having unexcused absences, and the nurse told Wendt that no one had said anything to her about the bullying or why the girl was absent.
This, Wendt says, indicates a clear pattern of neglect from the school administrators. No one cared, it seemed, how hurt her daughter may have been. No one informed parents about the incident. Instead, Wendt says Bennett sent a letter home on May 21, on the day she had spoken on the phone with him about her daughter’s case. The letter makes a vague reference to her daughter’s incident and includes this statement: “Given that most incidents take place on students’ and families’ personal devices and sites, it presents a challenge for schools to monitor posts.”
Wendt says the “FAIR’s ugliest” site is still visible on Instagram.
- Fear, danger, poor leadership cited as FAIR School parents, teachers demand firing of principal (Sarah Lahm, TC Daily Planet, 2014)
- Integration: What is it good for? (Alleen Brown, TC Daily Planet, 2012)
- “Mend, Don’t End” WMEP, say parents; “a vanity project,” says MPS (James Sanna, TC Daily Planet, 2009)
- Missing board member raises WMEP issues (Steve Brandt, Star Tribune)
- Turmoil at the top of West Metro Education Program (Steve Brandt, Star Tribune)