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Parents, district respond after homophobic Snapchat messages surface

NILES – After evidence of bullying, homophobic statements came to light last week at Niles New Tech, a family is speaking out and wants change within the school system.

Amy Cooper, mother to Damian Smith, a 10th grader at Niles New Tech, said what she heard when Damian contacted her during his school day last week was more than a “bad day.” Damian forwarded screenshots to Cooper from another student making fun of him and another unidentified student. Included in the screenshotted conversation on Snapchat were the words “I hate the gays in our class. I wish they would respectfully kill their selves.”

“It’s been really hard. I feel like I’ve failed. I’ve been more loud, not only because of the statements that were made, but this is my oldest child,” Cooper said. “I want people to understand that you stepped on toes, but the wrong toes.”

On Friday, Cooper said she learned just one student had received in-school suspension, though she had previously believed all involved had been suspended.

Niles Community Schools Superintendent Dr. Dan Applegate told Leader Publications that the district investigated the matter, but could not release details regarding student disciplinary action.

“The students involved faced the appropriate consequences. We want to respect our students’ confidentiality and cannot comment on the specific consequences that individual students faced,” Applegate said.

Dissatisfied with the district’s response, Cooper said she decided to open dialogue with Niles Community Schools.

A protest was planned for Monday morning. Cooper could not stay through the protest but said about 40 or 45 people showed up to support the students.

“I didn’t organize it, another mom did. Other moms are tired of their kids being bullied,” Cooper said.

Included in the protest planning was a walk-out by students who supported those targeted in the Snapchat messages, but Cooper said some students were not allowed to leave the building.

Applegate disputed this. He said students were not barred from participating in the walk-out. Several students were recorded at the protest.
“We will encourage students to use their voices to bring awareness to issues that they are passionate about in a respectful, civil and productive manner,” he said.

Following the protest, Cooper said a meeting with some parents and students occurred with leadership from Niles High School and Niles New Tech about a program concerning anti-bullying, inclusion and equality being put in place beginning in the 10th grade.

Cooper felt the concept did not begin early enough or reach enough students.

“I want everybody of every skin color, religion and orientation or who they love to feel safe,” Cooper said. “I know there’s not a lot of people feeling safe right now.”

Cooper did not feel like Niles Community Schools took her concerns seriously.

Applegate responded that on Tuesday morning, the schools hosted a meeting with students to hear their concerns and “discuss our ongoing and future efforts to reinforce respect, tolerance and inclusion within our school community.”

The district has an existing anti-bullying policy that is meant to protect all students from any kind of bullying or aggressive behavior. The policy encourages students to report bullying to adults within their building.

“Niles Community Schools’ behavior counselors and social workers are a key resource for victims of bullying,” Applegate said. “Earlier this year, we began working closely with our student body and community partners to offer additional resources to our school community. Planning for these initiatives will continue over the summer, with an anticipated launch next year.”

Reports of bullying to adults are relayed to the school systems’ Anti-Harassment Task Force to investigate further.

Applegate said the schools would continue to work closely with students, families, teachers and staff to ensure it was a safe and inclusive learning environment.

“We will continue to encourage our school community to use their voices to bring awareness to issues that they are passionate about in a respectful, civil and productive manner. Any student, family, teacher or staff member that would like to have a meeting with our administration is welcome to reach out. Additionally, we would encourage our families and members of the school community to talk to their children about these issues, because the school cannot address these issues without the support of the entire community,” Applegate said.

Applegate said to assist the school in identifying and addressing incidents immediately, the district partners with the state of Michigan’s OK2SAY program.

The program invites parents and students to call 8-555-OK2SAY (855-565-2729), text OK2SAY (65279), or email OK2SAY@mi.gov, or download the OK2SAY app to report bullying, criminal activity or potential harm that has been directed at peers or educators.

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