The mother of a 9-year-old boy says the Visalia Unified School District (VUSD) isn’t doing enough to protect her son after he was attacked by bullies.
Kelly Aguirre, whose son is a third-grader at Cottonwood Creek Elementary, says the boy was attacked by three other students while at recess on September 19, and the response from leadership at the District has been condescending and dismissive.
Tied to a Tree
The attack happened on the first day students at Cottonwood were allowed to play with jump ropes when three male students singled out Aguirre’s son as a target.
“They grabbed him and decided they were going to tie him to the tree,” she said. “He’s a pretty strong kid, so he got his hand between the rope and pulled it. He was able to get loose.”
Aguirre says she met with Cottonwood principal Sonja Joyner and an officer of the Visalia Police Department the next day. The incident was investigated, and the boys who attacked her son were disciplined appropriately.
“The principal at Cottonwood is great. She handled it quickly,” Aguirre said. “We aren’t allowed to know what the punishment is.”
However, the damage was already done. Aguirre says her son was traumatized by the attack, returning from school with a “shocked look on his face” and a fear of returning to class.
“To see him now not wanting to go to school and that sparkle of wanting to be engaged is gone,” she said. “He’s scared to go there.”
Hoping to remove her son from a place he no longer felt safe, Aguirre decided to take the matter up with the VUSD’s interim superintendent, Dr. Tamara Ravalin, but says she was ignored.
“I went to one of her Kudos and Concerns events and was told it was not the right forum,” Aguirre said. “I was basically asked to leave. After that they moved across the restaurant.”
Aguirre then decided to take her complaint to the VUSD Board of Education during its meeting on September 24, and she came with a solution in hand.
Two of Aguirre’s three children began attending Cottonwood Creek after the family moved recently across town. Previously, her son and a younger sibling attended Linwood Elementary, and Aguirre had already put in a request that would allow her children to return to that school.
“I went before them and I got my three minutes,” she said. “I gave them a handout about my requests.”
After learning of the incident, Aguirre hoped the school board would approve the transfer, ending her son’s fear of returning to Cottonwood. She called Ravalin the next day, but was met with disappointment.
“I asked ‘Are we going to talk about this?’” she said. “I got nothing.”
That’s when Aguirre turned to social media, posting requests asking others to call the VUSD and demand action from Ravalin and the board of education.
Board President Responds
The VUSD was “bombarded” with calls, Aguirre says, and she was finally able to talk over the matter with Board President John Crabtree. His response was not what Aguirre expected.
“He asked me to ask people to stop calling,” she said, “He told me, ‘Honey, kids are resilient. Just move on. The kids will be fine.’”
Aguirre was angered by Crabtree’s attitude regarding her son and her complaints.
“I think he was very chauvinistic, very passive to any concerns I had as a parent,” she said. “He didn’t even ask what school it was. I felt like he was annoyed he had to call. It was made very clear to me by him having parents call about this issue was a distraction, not a concern–a distraction.”
Crabtree, however, says the district has made eliminating bullying a priority, and he feels the issue has been handled appropriately at the school level.
“We don’t try to make light of what happened, because it’s just as serious to the district as it is to the mother,” he said. “They’re very protective of the kids, of all of our kids.”
Crabtree says he sympathizes with Aguirre, but she hasn’t taken the choices the VUSD has offered.
“I feel sorry for her,” he said. “She wants her child out of that school. There are options she ignored.”
Due to privacy concerns, Crabtree said he could not be specific about the district’s response to Aguirre, but solutions were offered.
“She came in to make her case. She’s aware (a transfer is) against district policy,” he said. “We want our parents happy, but we have to work within the rules. She still has the options that were offered open to her.”
And, he says, the board’s hands are tied.
“I wish there was more we could do to satisfy her,” Crabtree said. “We have mandates to keep classes to a certain size wherever possible. The rules are written to help us accomplish that.”
While the district is very concerned about bullying, Crabtree says behavior like this is practically unavoidable when dealing with young children.
“These are grade school kids,” he said. “They do stupid things sometimes.”
Crabtree also says it appears Aguirre’s son is safe at Cottonwood Creek Elementary.
“She (Aguirre) hasn’t brought forward anything more about him being bullied, at least as far as I know,” he said.
His confidence in the administration at Cottonwood is high, Crabtree says, and he believes they have adequately addressed the situation.
“Kids are so jealous of one another in school. The site has been watching the boy very closely, and the alleged bullies,” he said. “If they felt there was a problem they’d address it.”
While the victim’s feelings are appropriate, Crabtree says the child must learn to live with them.
“I don’t know if you could say it’s part of growing up,” he said. “We deal with people, everyday, with people we’d rather not deal with.”
The VUSD administrators, according to Crabtree, have done what they can and have no plans to reconsider their stance.
“You do the best for everyone and you move on,” he said.
Grand Jury Review
Aguirre isn’t ready to drop the matter; instead, she’s decided to seek a remedy outside the VUSD’s procedures.
“I reached out to the Tulare County Grand Jury,” she said. “I got a response from them today; it’s being reviewed.”
She’s also been contacted by a Fresno-based attorney who has offered to take Aguirre’s case to court if necessary.
“I don’t want money,” Aguirre said. “I want them to listen to my concerns.”
When she spoke at the VUSD board meeting on September 24, Aguirre says she felt the board members were unimpressed by the report of violence on one of their campuses.
“The look on their faces, just no care for the children, no concern, nothing,” she said.
Crabtree says that isn’t true.
“Kids are our business, and parents are part of that business,” he said. “We want happy parents. Happy parents mean happy kids, and happy kids are ready to learn.”
One Last Stand
Given the lack of action on the part of the VUSD Board of Education, Aguirre says her family is facing a difficult choice. The decision is made more troublesome by a loss of confidence in the district’s ability to protect her children.
“I want to pull my kids out of Visalia schools so they don’t get the money anymore,” she said. “It’s hard because I don’t want my kids to miss out on things.”
Instead, Aguirre is going to make a final attempt to get satisfaction from the board of education and make sure it understands her son’s case is not an isolated one. She plans to lead a parent “walk-in” at the board of education’s next meeting.
“We’re going to stand up and make them listen to us,” she said. “They need to hear how many parents in the district are facing the same thing I am.”
The board’s next meeting is scheduled for 7pm on October 15. The meeting will be held in the VUSD’s offices at 5000 W. Cypress Avenue.