Bullies started targeting Claire Tietgen at school when she was a first grader. Since that time, she’s transferred to eight different schools within the Shawnee Mission School District, her father Charles Tietgen estimates. A victim of bullying so severe she was once beaten unconscious by a group of students, Tietgen is now a freshman at Shawnee Mission East High School. She’s been there for three weeks, and Charles hopes she can stay. If not, a new Hope scholarship proposal might be her salvation.
“But once a child gets labeled or targeted, the bullying doesn’t stop,” he says. “It just grows to the point you have to remove the child.”
A bill before the Kansas Legislature could give Claire and her family more options if she needs to change schools again. Under the Kansas Hope Scholarship Act, or HB 2150, Claire could report her bullying and then transfer out of the Shawnee Mission School District to another a district or a private school, taking some state aid with her.
Proponents say the legislation is a way to provide viable options for parents and students in really bad situations.
“If our goal is a great education for every student, then why wouldn’t we offer this opportunity for students who feel like they’re trapped?” says Chuck Weber, the executive director of the Kansas Catholic Conference.
Critics say it’s a voucher bill designed to take money from public schools. They warn it would remove transparency and accountability in the public schools. Opponents of the bill warned that the legislation allows a student to say they’ve been bullied, without having to prove it, and redirect taxpayer money from a public school.
“Taken to an extreme, the bill could result in a raft of alleged witnesses leaving a school, with only the bullies remaining behind in a climate not conducive to learning,” Leah Fliter, a lobbyist for the Kansas Association of School Boards, said in written testimony to a House committee last week. “That is not a policy goal we are willing to promote.”
She agreed that bullying is pervasive, but she said the solution to the problem isn’t removing resources from one school and sending it to another. Charles says sometimes moving the student to a different school is the only option for the victim.
“You have to move your child,” Charles says. “That’s the only option that we and many parents have.”
But changing public school districts requires a change of address, and transferring to a private school is expensive.
“Having no resources on our end is frustrating,” he says. “We even tried homeschooling, but that takes a lot of resources, too.”
Students couldn’t use the Hope scholarship for homeschooling, but a bullied student would be eligible to transfer to a different public school district or a private school. The school district in which the student resides would keep some of the state aid provided for that individual student, but a portion–up to 96 percent of base aid– would go into an account at the Kansas State Treasurer’s Office to be transferred to the student’s new school.
It sounds like a good idea to Charles. He’s worked diligently to help other bullied students, founding a nonprofit organization, Bullied But Not Broken. The group helps students gain confidence by providing scholarships for extracurricular activities. Martial arts training helped Claire find joy and confidence after years of bullying. The pair opened a gym to provide a space where bullied kids can learn Jui Jitsu, and they also offer bullied kids assistance in assessing special needs children to help districts develop individualized learning plans for them.
Charles explains, Claire was born with fetal alcohol syndrome, and she struggled with traditional classroom learning. Her classwork improved after she received a student assessment.
“Claire is task-oriented,” he says. “She was constantly provided help when she was working on something. Teachers would stop her and try to re-direct her, but it left her frustrated and upset.”
Through the assessment, they learned that Claire works best when she is allowed to complete problems and assignments with limited interruption.
“This one small change to her IEP (individualized education plan) has made a world of difference,” Charles says.
Since creating Bullied But Not Broken, Claire has spoken to the Shawnee Mission School Board of Education and even spoken with the U.S. Justice Department about bullying and harassment in schools. But Charles acknowledges bullying continues to be a problem, and parents struggle to find a place to turn. Giving parents the financial resources to consider a different school could help.
“All these kids need options,” Charles said.