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AASD eighth-grader addresses bullying

Wearing a black baseball cap over her shaved head, Altoona Area eighth-grader Rhianna Gilbert-Kehoe stood in front of the school board Monday. Beside her, stood another student who read her statement on her behalf.

“At the beginning of the year, I was invited to join the junior high honor society. I had long hair. I am now no longer an honor roll student. I no longer have longer hair. The ongoing harassment and bullying are the reasons why. This is what happens when the schools do not address the harassment. It seems like nobody cares,” the statement said.

Fellow student Thomas Williams, 16, stood beside Gilbert-Kehoe, and on her behalf, he read aloud that letter that she wrote to the board regarding the sexual harassment that she deals with in school.

“I have been a victim of harassment and bullying repeatedly since I started at the junior high as a seventh-grader in the 2016-17 school year,” he read.

“A male student constantly caressed me in what the law called sexual assault,” the statement said. “In November 2016, I made a written complaint about what he was doing to me while I was in school to get my education. My guidance counselor said she would call my mother and let her know what was happening to me. She never called my mother.

“A few months later, in March, the same male student was still harassing me in the same sexual assault manner. I filled out another complaint. My mother was not contacted. She found out because of one of my friends. My mom addressed what was happening with school administration — bottom line, they wanted to change my class schedule. The male student was not punished or charged under law for sexually assaulting me. What he did continued to happen until the middle of May. No student should have to deal with this while getting their education,” her letter stated.

In October in eighth-grade, she said another male student started harassing her.

“He called me stupid, ugly and fat. I told him to knock it off. He wouldn’t. Even though I let my principal know what was going on and he could see what effect this was having on me, nothing was done to stop the harassment,” the letter said.

Williams added his own question to the board after he finished reading Gilbert-Kehoe’s letter.

“Bullying can lead to suicide, as we can see from last year’s events. So why are you guys not handling this in a better way where the bully gets in more trouble?” he asked.

Board President Dutch Brennan said he couldn’t speak to what happened but commended the students for working up the chain of command to the board.

“You talked to a guidance counselor, the principal, and you worked your way up to here. We are aware of it now. What happened along the line I can’t speak to. But I will say we have board members who are very sensitive to bullying, harassment and suicide. And it’s not something we take lightly,” Brennan said.

Superintendent Charles Prijatelj said the district would investigate the issue.

“We will do a complete investigation first thing tomorrow morning into your accusations,” Prijatelj said Monday. “If they were not handled, I am sorry, but we will make sure they are taken care of.

“Second of all, we have changed supervision patterns in all of our buildings,” Prijatelj said. “Basically, the teachers are out continually between classes to make sure the stairwells are safe, halls are safe, bathrooms are safe. That’s through grades seven to 12.

“We send an officer to the bridge at the end of the day to make sure kids get home safe. We also send an officer out into the neighborhood. We have taken deliberate actions to confront and deal with these issues. We are not perfect, but we are trying,” he said.

Williams suggested the district post signs explaining to students what sexual harassment is, to deter it from happening.

On Tuesday, Gilbert-Kehoe’s mother said her daughter continues to be harassed. She maintains the harassment last year and this year was a chargeable offense.

Gilbert-Kehoe said her daughter was not contacted by school staff Tuesday about the issues that she disclosed Monday. District Community Relations Director Paula Foreman said Wednesday that the administration is following up.

“As Dr. Prijatelj said in the meeting, administration would be following up on what was shared at the meeting. Due to confidentiality, we cannot discuss it in any more detail.”

Mirror Staff Writer Russ O’Reilly is at 946-7435.

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