Two parents pleaded with the School Board of Alachua County (SBAC) Tuesday night to address reported episodes of bully behavior at Fort Clarke Middle School.
"I ask you as a mother please help these kids before it's too late," Lisa Hershkowitz said as she described physical and emotional abuse she said was inflicted on her daughter. She said the incidents required medical treatment and therapy after seven students beat her daughter and emotionally bullied the girl for months.
Hershkowitz said her daughter was singled out in class by a teacher as having "slave tendencies" because of her looks, then ridiculed by classmates.
"My child attended Fort Clarke three years ago," she told the board. "It was the worst experience of my life."
Hershkowitz said the experiences damaged her child permanently. A year of bullying by groups of children went bypassed, she said, despite pleas for help with the school administration.
Hershkowitz said her daughter received cracked ribs and a permanent nose injury that has led to surgery.
"I went time and time again to the school for help," she said. "I beg you to look into the episodes that are happening at Fort Clarke Middle School and see what needs to be done there."
Hershkowitz said her child could not ride the bus, was targeted in front of the principal, and that the children she said bullied her daughter were allowed to remain at school.
"Something needs to be done before some child takes their life, before some random act of violence takes place at Fort Clarke Middle School and then we are all sitting here asking ourselves as parents, educators, mothers, fathers, grandmothers, why nothing was done," Hershkowitz said. "I'm begging you. There are parents crying out to you. It's not just me. To see what's going on at that school. Please help these kids before it's too late. It is year after year after year."
Hershkowitz said it was a March 5 post on the Gainesville Word of Mouth Facebook group by former University of Florida football player and parent David Young that inspired her to come forward to the SBAC.
Young's post called attention to "serious bullying taking place at Fort Clarke Middle School." He specifically cited a a 6th grade boy whose mother died and whose father is in prison.
"He is being bullied because he has no mother and father," Young wrote. "At one point the bullies told him that his mother probably died because of looking at his ugly face. This has been going on all year for this child."
Young said the school principal was aware of the situation, "but the school isn't trying to stop the bullying. The young child has gotten fed up and has said some choice words and now the school is trying to expel him, while not dealing with the bullies. IF this child is expelled, it will not stop the bullies they will just find another child to attack."
Young's posted prompted more than 400 comments to pour in from parents and former students, many of whom cited similar experiences at FCMS.
"Fort Clarke won’t do anything to stop bullying," wrote Kendra Ligon Kuck. "I know this first hand. They will turn their backs and deny there is a problem."
"I pulled my daughter out of Ft. Clarke and sent her to a private school," commented Joann Mossa.
"Fort Clarke has always been this way," wrote former student Naomi Leigh Brooks. "I went for middle school 2010-2013 and was horrifically bullied and the school NEVER did anything. No matter how many times me or my family begged them for help."
Parents from other schools in Alachua County also commented with similar claims. "Good luck. I'm just getting started with a teacher at GHS [Gainesville High School] that joined in with students to bully my son for being a U.S. soldier. This too has been an ongoing issue at GHS."
Young, a former football player for the University of Florida, also spoke to the SBAC Tuesday about his concerns. He said the post was about a coworker whose son and son's best friend are reportedly being bullied at the school.
After eight months, Young told the school board that the children have been reaching out for help from teachers and counselors, but received none, so the bullying behavior continues.
Both parents claim that the FCMS administration offers changing schools or schedules as a solution without addressing the students acting out and doing the bullying.
"I am 6 feet, 5 inches (tall), 360 pounds now," Young said. "But I was always bullied as a kid."
Young said he is from Southside Chicago and bullying now is very different from what he received as a child.
"I was physically bullied, but her son is being physically and verbally bullied, and I feel like that is a lot more damaging on children than hitting someone," Young said about his coworker's child. "If you demean me as a person, that's very lasting."
Countless other parents have the same concern, Young told the SBAC.
"I have a daughter who is in fifth grade and I don't want her to go through this next year," he said. "I don't want to have to leave Alachua County because of bullying. I worked hard so that my kids don't get bullied. I would hate to see this happen to anybody else. As a school board, as a county we can't have it."
Members of the school board had little say Tuesday night in response to the concerns.
"Thank you so much for coming and sharing with us," said SBAC Chair Leanetta McNealy.
On Wednesday ACPS spokesperson Jackie Johnson told Mainstreet Daily News the school district does not tolerate any bully behavior and that parents should report any activity directly to the principal, or reach out to the superintendent if they are not satisfied with the outcome.
Johnson also said parents and students can seek help through Student Support Services or by calling the Bullying Help Hotline (352) 955-7200)—which operates 24 hours per day but has received few calls, according to Johnson.
"The number of bullying complaints to the hotline from Ft. Clarke have actually decreased in the last few years, from seven during the 2018-19 school year to one in 2019-20 to none so far this year," Johnson said. "Parents should definitely contact the hotline if they have or are aware of a bullying issue. Our district staff will respond immediately, because this is an issue we take very seriously."
To see current policy that addresses bullying click here.
To see the March 16 meeting and the comments made by Young and Hershkowitz click here and go to 21:59 minute marker.