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Bullying. It’s a buzzword that’s become all too familiar in society and has especially hit home this week after a blog accused a local school of ignoring the situation.
Titled “Open Letter To NOHS” and directed to administration, Abigail Ervin — a 2012 graduate of Neligh-Oakdale — detailed her junior high and high school experience with bullying. More specifically, it accused Neligh-Oakdale of not addressing the issue.
“Bullying is normal. Bullying to the point of mental illness is not,” Ervin wrote. “Plenty of the former students brought their concerns to the administration at Neligh-Oakdale, but it's clear that little to nothing has been done to impart actual change at the high school. This is now an issue of the institution.”
The blog has raised many questions. Is bullying a problem at Neligh-Oakdale? What triggered Ervin to speak out now? How will the district respond to such a public complaint?
How It Started
Thanks to social media, Ervin’s blog Tuesday night went viral. Comments poured in from parents, students, graduates and many who had no affiliation with the school. But the common link was bullying.
Ervin told the Antelope County News that her main motivation for writing the blog stems from the “internal pain” that has lingered from high school. The trigger, she said, came from a message asking her and hundreds of other Neligh-Oakdale alumni to share their thoughts on their educational experience at the school.
Ervin wasn’t singled out with the post-graduate survey, and bullying wasn’t mentioned in the questions. She said simply having to think back to high school triggered the memories of bullying.
“When we received the Facebook message from our high school guidance counselor, it kind of set me right back in high school, and I felt like nothing had changed. I wasn’t doing well and everything just went right back to how I felt in high school. That was just kind of the switch for me,” she explained.
Although she was unaware why, Ervin noticed that she had become a target in high school. From rumors, threats and name calling — she never thought that her experience could worsen.
After losing weight due to a thyroid disease, Ervin was soon labeled as “the anorexic” by her peers. Tired of the constant harassment, she found herself thinking, “If everyone was going to say that I had an eating disorder, why not make this one true.”
Before she knew it, Ervin became exactly what she was being labeled.
The bullying began to worsen as Ervin faced the challenge of finding the courage to step into the halls of her school. She found herself skipping school on days that she felt too sad or sick to go, which only lead to one more thing to dread: Her teachers.
Many teachers soon began to treat her poorly making accusations that she was just “playing hooky.”
“My teachers talked down to me to other students when I was gone, and then they treated me badly when I was there. Which then it made it okay for the students to do about me and others. There was no winning,” she wrote.
Ervin’s blog was posted to Facebook at 9:17 p.m. Tuesday night. Less than 18 hours later — at 2:36 p.m. on Wednesday — Superintendent Scott Gregory announced a special meeting of the Board of Education to “receive and discuss legal advice on multiple student issues.”
There was no mention of Abigail Ervin or the blog. The term bullying was not used. The email did state, “We have no comment at this time.” It also said the 7 p.m. special meeting would likely go into closed session.
And it did, but not before guidance counselor April Knust asked to address the board. It was Knust who had sent the message to Ervin and all of the other graduates, and she wanted to speak publicly.
Her request was denied. Superintendent Scott Gregory shook his head no. Board President David Wright said there was “no audience portion.”
The board then moved onto closed session. Not all board members wanted the conversation to be behind closed doors. Kenny Reinke voted against it, but majority ruled.
At 7:04 p.m., the doors closed with only the board members and superintendent inside. At 7:57 p.m., they reconvened publicly and voted "to authorize and direct Gregory to release a statement regarding student matters, conduct and investigation, work with legal counsel and to report his findings of the investigation to the board."
Still, there was no mention of the term bullying. It wasn’t until 9:15 a.m. Friday that bullying was officially used by the district. That’s when Gregory sent a statement to the media.
For the first time, the term bullying was used. The statement was titled, “Re: Bullying.”
It said: "As the result of a school improvement survey, we were recently notified by former students about bullying and harassment concerns. We take any report of bullying and harassment seriously. The administration is launching a complete and thorough investigation and will report our findings to the board. State and federal confidentiality laws prevent us from communicating with you about the specifics of student and personnel matters. However, we will keep our school partners and community members informed about our school culture to the fullest extent possible. The school district has policies and procedures in place to address allegations of unlawful harassment and bullying. If you have any concerns regarding these matters you would like to share, please contact Superintendent Scott Gregory, High School Principal George Loofe or Elementary Principal Mary Schrader at (402) 887-4166."
While Ervin has spoken out publicly, others have voiced concerns privately. Gregory alluded to other incidents in his statement.
The Antelope County News has received multiple messages, phone calls and visits from individuals who shared concerns over behavior at Neligh-Oakdale that they have either witnessed personally or reported from their children or other students.
Just as the school cited confidentiality, those individuals also requested to remain anonymous. All of them cited fear of school officials targeting their children. While the complaints referenced bullying and behavior, none could be characterized as the same.
Different students. Different teachers. Different administrators. Different situations. Same school.
What Happens Next
The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (DHHS) said bullying can happen in any number of places, contexts or locations. However, schools remain a key location for bullying behavior because “most bullying takes place in school, outside on school grounds and on the school bus. Bullying also happens wherever kids gather in the community.”
According to DHHS, one-third of U.S. students said they have been bullied at school and most bullying occurs in middle schools.
On Thursday, Neligh-Oakdale voted to investigate itself and its situation. While the findings of the internal investigation will have little effect on Ervin, the Neligh-Oakdale graduate said she is hopeful the district finds resolution with bullying.
“I wasn’t sure if it was about what I was doing or not,” Ervin said in regard to Thursday’s special meeting. “I hope that they’re taking this seriously and understanding that there is a lot of issues at that school that I hope get fixed.”