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Family pulls student from team, school after bullying

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Zeke Smith stands at home with his mother, Noelle Webb.
Zeke Smith stands at home with his mother, Noelle Webb. PHOTO BY SHARON SHIPLEY

Zeke Smith's mother pulled him from the basketball team to minimize contact with bullies.
Zeke Smith's mother pulled him from the basketball team to minimize contact with bullies. PHOTO BY SHARON SHIPLEY

Twelve-year-old Zeke Smith loves basketball. He plays on courts in his Tipton Lakes neighborhood and in public parks. He watches college and pro basketball on TV. He idolizes the Indiana Pacers’ Danny Granger and the Miami Heat’s LeBron James.

He also loved playing on the team of his former elementary school, Columbus Signature Academy — Fodrea Campus, but left the team and school after Zeke and his mom said he was bullied.

Zeke now attends his neighborhood school, Southside Elementary School.

Zeke and his mother, Noelle Webb, are unhappy about how Fodrea school officials handled their reports of bullying. In one case, they claim school officials even made the situation worse.

Discipline for inappropriate behavior

Guidelines for inappropriate behavior at Columbus Signature Academy — Fodrea Campus call for lunch/recess detention on first and second offenses for display of disrespectful behavior, which includes name calling and disrespectful gestures.

Aggressive behavior, including shoving, pushing and causing injury are, on first offense, to be punished by lunch/recess detention, and, on second offense, by after-school detention.

Bullying, which includes teasing, taunting or intentionally excluding others, calls for three days of after-school detention on first offense, and one day in-school suspension on second.

All of the situations described above include referral to a counselor.

Fodrea Campus officials acknowledge that one incident could have been handled better but say they followed school guidelines regarding reports of bullying and took appropriate action.

All parties involved say the outcome, that Zeke no longer plays on the school team and has left the school, is disappointing.

Zeke said the bullying started during basketball tryouts, when another student pushed and tripped him and called him names.

“Then I go to the teachers, and they won’t do anything about it,” he said recently, sitting at a living room table in the family’s apartment on the west side of Columbus.

Zeke said he reported to a coach or teacher at least five incidents with the other student.

“He gets away with it all the time,” Zeke said.

The other student makes sure that his actions take place outside the view or earshot of adults and other students, Zeke said; although, in some cases, other students have corroborated his reports.

“It’s on my mind all the time,” he said.

Webb said the bullying changed her son, a good student who liked going to school. He frequently came home from practices upset and, unlike previously, became ill in the morning before the bus arrives.

“He didn’t want to get up in the morning,” she said.

Zeke said, “I don’t like going to school because they won’t do anything.”

Principal Diane Clancy said that the school takes bullying seriously and has followed its disciplinary guidelines in each of the situations that was reported.

Clancy said that Fodrea has received six reports of bullying since Aug. 6. Four of those were logged within the first month of the school year, and one more each in January in February. Two of the incidents involved Zeke, Clancy said, although neither involved physical altercation.

Clancy said that the school investigated each incident and took the appropriate steps. Investigating the incidents can be tricky, she said, because they sometimes include only two students who may be accusing each other of having started the disagreement.

Clancy said that in the incidents with Zeke, the school involved the school counselor and took disciplinary action against the accused student, although she said she could not provide details for confidentiality reasons.

Clancy said the school also added more adult supervisors to basketball practices and games to reduce the likelihood of further incidents.

‘I got really tensed up’

Zeke and his mother said that despite the school’s actions the bullying continued, both at school and basketball practice.

One incident, in particular, was hurtful, Zeke said.

He said that he and another student told basketball coach Liz Blair in confidence that Zeke had been bullied, and Blair told the students that she would investigate.

Instead, Zeke said, Blair, a short while later, called the team together on the basketball floor and asked the other boy whether he had indeed bullied Zeke.

Zeke said that he felt as though information he had provided in confidence was announced in front of the whole team.

“I got really tensed up,” Zeke said. “I ran out.”

Clancy who also was present during the incident, acknowledged, “That wasn’t the best way to go about addressing that specific incident.”

Clancy said she intervened when she saw how the situation was handled, but when she checked with Zeke at school the next day he seemed fine.

Blair said that during the meeting she talked about team-building skills and that teams should avoid turmoil and that, if one team member is upset, it should be upsetting for the entire team. She said Zeke got upset and left the room because of a different incident.

She acknowledged that she could have handled the incident better.

“Obviously I didn’t like the outcome,” she said.

‘It’s sad’

Zeke returned to practice the next day without any problem, she said.

Brandy Foster, also the mother of a child on the basketball team, praised Blair for her dedication to the team.

The school almost did not have a team until Blair stepped up, Foster said. Blair also volunteers to supervise the kids for 30 minutes between an after-school learning program and basketball practice. If she didn’t, Foster said, parents would have to find another way to have their children supervised during that transition.

Zeke and his mom said that despite the school’s actions, the bullying did not stop. After another incident in the after-school program, called Beacon, Webb said she pulled her son out of the school’s basketball program.

Blair, who also coordinates the Beacon program at Fodrea, said the incident at Beacon did not involve Zeke or the boy with whom he had previous entanglements.

Blair said she was shocked to learn that Zeke would no longer play on the team.

“I didn’t want him off the basketball team,” she said. “It’s sad.”

Webb said that as she was contemplating how to prevent Zeke from being bullied further, a different situation prompted her to pull him out of Fodrea altogether and send him to Southside, where he had attended previously.

Webb said Zeke, on several occasions in early February, was made to walk in a circle during recess, in view of the other students, because his teacher alleged that he had not completed his assignments, a contention that Webb disputes.

On Feb. 15, Zeke called his mom on the school phone, crying, and said that his teacher was going to make him walk again at recess if he could not produce an assignment from Jan. 25, which, Webb said, Zeke did not have anymore.

She decided to drive to the school.

“I could hear him crying ... before I even walked into the school,” Webb said.

That was the final straw, Webb said, and she decided to remove Zeke from Fodrea.

‘Nip it in the bud’

Clancy said that she could not discuss the Feb. 15 incident for confidentiality reasons but said she talked to other school officials who were present at the time, and they said Zeke did not start crying until his mother arrived.

Clancy also said that students, for some infractions, are asked to walk during recess as a reminder to get their work done. She said the students walk in part to get exercise rather than spending recess detention inside a classroom.

Foster said that Webb told her that she pulled Zeke out of the school for reasons other than bullying, including that she could no longer take him to practices because the family was down to one car.

Webb said that she gave Foster no information beyond a text message to let her know that Zeke was no longer at the school. She said the family has operated with one car for years.

Since Zeke has gone back to Southside, his enthusiasm for school has returned, Webb said.

“I’ve seen a totally different kid,” she said Wednesday.

She said some students and teachers recognized Zeke and greeted him when she took him back to the school on a recent Monday.

“It’s pretty overwhelming ... but in a good way,” she said.

Webb said schools are not taking harsh enough of an approach to stop bullies early on, which, she said, means that the bullies get worse as they get older.

“They need to nip it in the bud,” she said.

Clancy said the school works hard to prevent bullying and that it is upsetting for the staff when it happens.

“We thought we had taken care of the situation,” Clancy said.

Zeke said that if he could, he would tell bullies simply to stop.

“And I would tell kids who are being bullied to step up,” he said.

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