Jeff Sloan knew something was wrong as soon as his 10-year-old son got off the school bus.
Jayden, a fourth grader at Mason Elementary in Lee’s Summit, was limping slightly – and there was something wrong with his speech.
“He’s talking like his tongue’s tied, and he’s telling me, ‘I’ve had the worst day, Dad. It’s just been terrible,’” Jeff says. “I said, ‘So what happened? Why are you talking like that?’ And he goes, ‘I bit my tongue.’”
The story came out haltingly. Jayden had been standing with some classmates on the playground when someone barreled into him, knocking him to the ground. Jayden caught the kid’s elbow in his face. Sure enough, there was a pea-sized black and blue knot on Jayden’s tongue.
Jeff asked Jayden if he knew who the kid was. Jayden shook his head. He hadn’t gotten a good look.
Jeff asked Jayden if the kid had apologized. Again, Jayden shook his head. The kid had kept on running, he told his dad.
Jeff asked Jayden if he wanted him to talk to the principal. This time, Jayden nodded.
And so Jeff agreed to report the incident the next day. Not that he expected anyone to take him seriously. For years, the Sloans have dutifully reporting the bullying Jayden has experienced to Mason Elementary administrators, only to have their concerns downplayed or ignored.
“‘Are you sure this wasn’t an accident?’” Jeff says, mimicking the administrators, teachers, recess aides and bus supervisors he says he’s spoken with since Jayden was in first grade. “Well, you can take a look at Jayden’s mouth if you want, but I’m kinda irritated because my son’s been hit again and you keep calling it an accident.”
‘ ... if this were an actual problem ... ’
Just a few weeks into the 2014-15 school year, Soni Sloan sent Jayden’s first-grade teacher an achingly polite email.
“Jayden has been telling us for a couple of weeks that there is a bully who is preventing him to play kickball or basketball,” she wrote. “He has been pushed on concrete multiple times. Jayden does not know the kid’s name and says he is a new kid in first grade. He can identify who he is. Jayden said he mentioned this to the aids (sic) and you and nothing has happened. ... What can we do to find a common solution, so these issues do not occur with Jayden or any other kid who is not able to get help?”
She copied Mason Elementary Principal Beth Ratty on the email.
A day later, Jayden’s teacher, Cindy Setter, replied. She told Soni when she took Jayden out to the playground to look for the bully, he admitted to making it up.
“I told him that I was disappointed that he made up a story that involved me and the recess aides not responding to his needs,” Setter wrote. “Please be assured that if this were an actual problem, both the recess aides and I would have addressed (it).”
That night, Jayden told his parents the same thing – that he’d made the story up. Soni wrote his teacher back, embarrassed, promising to reinforce the importance of telling the truth at home. She can’t remember now how she and Jeff punished Jayden. She thinks they grounded him for a month.
Her voices catches. Looking back, she wishes they’d believed Jayden.
‘Are you going to tell your mommy?’
The next year, Soni would contact Mason Elementary again to complain Jayden was being bullied on the way to school. This time, the Sloans knew who the bully was – a girl a year older who went to the same Lake Lotawana daycare as Jayden.
At first, the school refused to do anything, Soni says. Weeks went by. The bullying got so bad Soni decided to enter every push, hit and shove Jayden endured into an Excel spreadsheet.
Soni spent two weeks documenting the bullying. She and Jeff talked to Jayden’s bus driver and two daycare teachers from the Heart & Soul Children's Christian Learning Center, all of whom agreed that the girl bothering Jayden was a bully. In fact, the director of the daycare confided to Jeff that other families had left because of this particular child.
Soni named the Excel file “Jayden being bullied” and attached it to an email to the principal. This time, Mason Elementary acted swiftly.
“It’s almost like the school has key words,” Jeff says. “When you send multiple emails and use the word ‘bully,’ well, now it’s a big deal.”
Because the bullying had occurred on the bus, the school was able to pull the tapes and review the incident. Jayden’s bully was kicked off the bus. Soni doesn’t think that would have happened if not for her meticulous spreadsheet. She uses a different word to describe the torment Jayden endured for weeks before the adults at Mason Elementary put a stop to it.
“They let her torture him for a whole month,” Soni says.
‘I don’t have any friends here’
Jeff says his son used to have a lot of friends. Jayden always had big birthday parties, always got along well with the boys on his baseball team. Recently, though, Jayden told his parents he didn’t want to play baseball this spring.
“I don’t really like sports that much anymore,” Jayden says. He shrugs. It’s not like he’s the only fourth grader who’d rather be playing Minecraft than just about anything.
But Soni and Jeff are worried. Last fall, during parent-teacher conferences, Jayden’s teacher showed them something their son had written. I don’t have any friends here.
A heartbroken Soni asked Jayden what he did at recess if he didn’t play with his friends.
“He goes, ‘I just hang out with myself,’” Soni says. “If you’re out at recess and you’re actually watching all the kids, you think you would notice someone just by themselves constantly.”
Jeff doesn’t think anyone at Mason Elementary is looking all that closely. If they were, they wouldn’t have greeted him with such skepticism when he reported Jayden had been knocked down on the playground.
“Really, the first thing that got said was, ‘Was it an accident?’ And I go, ‘That’s what I’m here to find out.’” Jeff says. “The next question was, ‘Did (Jayden) tell a teacher?’ Then they wanted to know if (Soni and I had) emailed the teacher. I said, ‘That’s why I’m coming up here to tell you now.”
Jeff says he’s used to this – no one at Mason Elementary wants to be the one to take the report. The recess aide kicks it to the teacher, the teacher kicks it to the principal. Officially, it’s up to principals to investigate reports of bullying. Jeff says he got a call from Principal Ratty later that day. She put Jayden on speakerphone.
“She says, ‘Jayden has something to tell you.’ He gets on the phone and he’s crying. I say, ‘Son, it sounds like you’re crying, what’s going on?’ And he goes, ‘I just want to tell you it was an accident, Dad.’ OK. I said, ‘Did she tell you to tell me this? Because it’s not what you told me.’”
Jeff’s pretty sure that someone not only coached his son to say it was an accident but also made Jayden feel like he’d be in trouble if he didn’t. It was first grade all over again.
‘Do you not love me?’
Meanwhile, Soni was dealing with another situation at Mason Elementary. Back in January, Jayden’s younger sister, 6-year-old Armani, had come home with bruises and a cut on her arm. Soni sent a picture of a pouting Armani in her gymnastics leotard to kindergarten teacher Amy Crotts.
“I talked with the person that Armani said that hurt her,” Crotts wrote back two days later. “The girl said that they were washing hands and Armani had her hands on both the soap containers so she couldn't wash her hands. The girl went to move Armani's arm off the soap and her arm hit the sink. She said she told Armani sorry.”
Another accident. Soni and Jeff were starting to feel like there were an awful lot of accidents at Mason Elementary.
Then something happened that couldn’t be written off as an accident. Two weeks ago, Armani went up to the girl who’d bruised her arm and asked if she and another classmate could play with her. The girl said Armani could, but Armani’s friend couldn’t – because she has a different skin color.
Armani turned to her best friend, who is black, and told her she’d play with her the next day.
“To me, that’s just heartbreaking because this shouldn’t be happening with 6-year-old kids,” Soni says.
It was especially painful for Soni, who is Indian. Like Armani’s best friend, her skin is very dark.
“I asked, ‘Do you think there’s something wrong with her skin color?’ She says 'No, I love her.’ I said, ‘Your mom has the same skin color, do you not love me?’”
‘You can’t fight back’
Soni didn’t use to think about the fact that she and Jeff were raising biracial kids in mostly white Lake Lotawana. Their neighbors are friendly. But two incidents recently have left Soni wondering if she’s really welcome.
She says as Donald Trump campaigned in 2016, some kids in Jayden’s Boy Scout troop thought it would be fun to chant, “Crooked Hillary! Lock her up!” Trump’s rhetoric made Soni uncomfortable. But the other moms, she noticed, were laughing and smiling.
The second incident was even more troubling. Soni and the kids were shopping at a grocery store in Blue Springs when a boy started spitting at Jayden and Armani.
“The little boy's mom who was standing right there,” Soni says. “She could see that her little boy was spitting on my children. And so I said, ‘Can you tell your child to stop spitting?’ And she just gives me a look like, what do you want me to do?”
Frightened, Soni and her children left the store. That night, she and Jeff had a conversation with the kids she never thought she’d have to have.
“Whether it's spitting or hitting or someone saying mean things to you because you have a different color skin, I want you guys to be prepared for it,” Soni remembers telling Jayden and Armani. “There is nothing you can do. You can’t fight back.”
Soni tries not to think about the possibility her kids are being bullied at school because they are biracial.
“I think I'm more afraid to say it, afraid to acknowledge it because then that would make it true,” Soni says.
‘I didn't want to stoop to her level’
The Lee’s Summit R-7 School District hired its first black superintendent, Dennis Carpenter, last year. Not two weeks later, a black student and her mother asked the school board to investigate several racial bullying incidents at Bernard C. Campbell Middle School and Lee’s Summit North High School.
A mother and her daughter get up to tell LSR7 school board about incidents of racism experienced at LSN. pic.twitter.com/xEv4rbncL4
— Elle Moxley (@ellemoxley) January 20, 2017
Carri Ellis told board members at the Jan. 19, 2017, meeting that she moved her family to Lee’s Summit because of the district’s reputation for academic excellence.
“It’s phenomenal. I wanted to make sure my daughters were prepared for college. Lee’s Summit School District does that over and beyond,” she said.
But then younger daughter Grace overheard a student using the N-word at the bus stop. She asked her classmate to apologize, and he did. Older daughter Michele also heard classmates using the N-word at school.
“This particular young man had a picture of a man being lynched, and he said to Michele, ‘I wish slavery were still here,’” Carri said.
The eighth-grade principal at Campbell addressed the incident in a way that was empowering for Michele, Carri said. But the racial taunts continued when Michele moved up to Lee’s Summit North. She was shoved in the hallway and called the N-word.
“I addressed her and said, ‘Excuse me?’ My friend held me back and said, ‘She’s not worth it.’ I’m glad because I didn’t want to stoop to her level,” Michele said.
She also reported an incident where a Hispanic classmate had been chased by white students telling her to go back to the border.
“She’s an American citizen. Why would she need to go back?” Michele asked rhetorically.
Michele told the school board she felt the election of Trump had emboldened some of her white classmates. She said three white students with “Go Trump” signs disrupted a rehearsal of the majority-black Northside Steppers dance team.
“That’s their political choice, but it wasn’t appropriate during our practice,” Michele said. She said the students didn’t back off, even when asked to do so by a teacher.
School board members thanked the Ellis family for bringing the incidents to their attention, adding that it’s impossible to investigate if they don’t know it happened.
‘Is your policy to protect the bullies?’
But the Sloan family’s experience at Mason Elementary suggests that the district doesn’t take bullying reports all that seriously. Last week, frustrated by what she felt was a wholly inadequate response to the incident where Armani’s friend was excluded because she was black, Soni filled out a form on the district’s website.
“Two of my kids go to Mason Elementary,” she wrote. “They have both been bullied on multiple occasions and every time I send a message to their teachers or talk to Beth Ratty the Principal, somehow my kids start believing that they have done something wrong by reporting that they are bullied. The staff successfully manipulated my kids into believing they have made up the stories about bullying. I am deeply concerned about the psychological manipulation tactics used with my kids by the school. Is your policy to protect the bullies and your staff?”
Soni didn’t expect a response, so she was surprised when someone wrote back asking for her phone number. But then no one called. Her complaint had been sent back to the principal who made Jayden call his dad in tears.
“You sending my message back to school to deal with me has been my experience with the school itself,” Soni wrote in an email to Assistant Superintendent Jennifer Kephart.
The district declined to comment on specific incidents at Mason Elementary involving the Sloan children, citing federal privacy law that requires them to have permission from the parents of all students involved.
“Accordingly, the school district cannot respond to specific allegations by one parent without infringing on the rights of other students,” district spokeswoman Janice Phelan said in an email. “There are almost always two sides to every story, and in situations such as this, the school district must be thorough in its actions inclusive of hearing from all parties before taking any actions.”
Elle Moxley covers education for KCUR. You can reach her on Twitter @ellemoxley.