Bullying continues after Westlake student stands up for special needs classmates
AUSTIN, Texas —
One day before graduation a student is still being bullied after standing up for special needs kids at her school last October. This week, more than a dozen supporters went to the Eanes ISD school board meeting telling them the district needs to recognize the problem and do more to create a safe environment for students.
Last fall, Westlake High School senior Alyssa Tintori spoke up after coming across offensive images on social media. The photos showed her classmates in Halloween costumes mocking special needs students. One photo caption said, “retard and handler" while another image showed a fake teacher ID with the job title, "tard wrangler."
“For my classmates to mock them made me really sad, and I couldn't just do nothing about it,” Tintori says.
Tintori's mother, Jeanette Morales, supported her daughter reporting the photos to school administrators.
“She had the impression that her identity would remain anonymous and for some reason it did not,” Morales says. She explains, for the last seven months her daughter has been called vulgar names--in the halls, at football games and on social media. She says her daughter’s vehicle was vandalized with soda and syrup and it seems nothing will make the harassment stop.
Since then, Morales says she's filed formal complaints and had multiple meetings with campus officials and the district's lawyer but nothing has made her feel like her daughter is any safer.
In April, Tintori received a message that things were far from over. “One of the students texted me and said the fact that I thought it could be over was laughable,” Tintori says. She adds that she doesn’t feel campus administrators have sufficiently supported her--instead advising Tintori to “stop seeking out the bullying” and not to care so much what others think of her.
“We're one day before graduation and these students still feel enabled to bully and harass an individual that came forward and thought that they were doing the right thing,” Morales says.
Tuesday night parents packed the Eanes ISD board meeting concerned the district is not taking the situation seriously enough.
“Right or wrong, the message we received as parents --we received it loud and clear, yet again-- is that the Westlake brand more important than the well-being and needs of students with disabilities,” said Jana McKelvey speaking on behalf of the district’s parents who have students with special needs.
Tintori graduates Friday and is prepared to hear boos as she walks across the stage. Still, she says her biggest concern is that nothing has changed, special needs students will continue to be disrespected and those who stand up for them will suffer for it.
“It's disappointing because our school is ranked so highly in academics, but we fall short in helping those who need help emotionally,” Tintori says.
Eanes ISD did not make themselves available for an interview this week, but says they have handled this situation appropriately. Parents of special needs students are asking the district to create an inclusion task force that will identify barriers their children face. The district says they have not had time to process that request. Read a full letter from the superintendent here:
Dear Parents & Guardians,
You may have seen a report in the media involving an incident that occurred last fall connected to Westlake High School students. In order for our community to have a clearer picture of the situation, I would like to provide the following information.
To provide background, in October, Westlake High School administrators were made aware of an incident that took place at an off-campus, weekend Halloween party that involved Westlake students. We are proud of the multiple students who reported their concern to administrators. Although the event took place off campus, Westlake administrators investigated the issue, provided counseling to all students involved and issued appropriate consequences.
We did not make and have not made the details of those consequences public, of course, due to federal privacy laws put in place to protect all students. We cannot disclose details of situations related to student discipline, particularly when those students are minors and the incident is one where identities may be revealed. Even though some may come forward publicly with their perceptions of our response, we still must adhere to all legal, ethical and FERPA guidelines in how we comment.
To be clear, the initial event and all subsequent reports of bullying, harassment or property damage were investigated and handled appropriately by school administrators in coordination with the Travis County Sheriff’s Office. When bullying reports are made to any school administrator, they are investigated fully and, when appropriate, consequences and counseling are provided. Our administrators follow board policy on bullying and mandatory training is administered annually. Further, this year the District implemented an online reporting system which has been used to report issues or concerns anonymously; all reports are investigated in a timely manner.
After the initial event last fall, the school took a proactive approach to educate all students on disability awareness and sensitivity and scheduled a student and staff in-service in February that focused on the importance of respecting students with special needs. During the assembly, RJ Mitte, an actor from the show “Breaking Bad” discussed his disability, the challenges he has overcome and the importance of identifying and intervening in bullying and harassment situations. He also discussed the perils of social media.
Eanes ISD will continue to educate students and staff on disability awareness, as we feel it is an important conversation that should be routinely discussed. We will continue our focus on social-emotional learning and a Board of Trustees’ priority focused on special education. We respect all our students, in particular, those with special needs. Working with our community, we share a commitment to assess situations such as this and to work toward counseling and educating all.
It is important to note, not everyone is privy to all of the information in this investigation, including the numerous student and teacher interviews, video footage and bullying reports connected to this incident. Mr. Ramsey and his team reviewed all, consulted with internal legal counsel, worked with the Sheriff’s Office and kept the Board of Trustees informed. I have complete confidence in Mr. Ramsey’s team and their commitment to maintain a safe and respectful environment at Westlake High School.
We ask our community to respect privacy considerations and to recognize we are not providing specifics on the investigation or any consequences because we are required to protect the confidentiality of our students and their families. Remember, there are details that are not public and we must be cognizant of the potential damage erroneous information based on assumptions can do.
Thank you for all you do to support our students,
Dr. Tom Leonard