Called stupid because she has dyslexia and teased about her appearance, Sarafrances Kaser used to beg her mother to let her stay home last year from North Charleston’s A.C. Corcoran Elementary School.
The 8-year-old would come home from school asking why a classmate had pulled her hair, spit on her jacket, called her names or threatened her.
But Sarafrances’ bullies never seemed to face strict punishment from A.C. Corcoran, according her mother, Dawn Kaser. The problems continued until the school district — which declined to comment — agreed in December to let Kaser send her daughter to another school.
“I was furious. I was mad beyond belief,” Kaser said. “I just started trying to find ways to help her.”
The stay-at-home mom thinks her daughter’s story could have been different under a proposed bullying law that is up for debate at the State House this spring.
That bill, filed by state Rep. Samuel Rivers, a Berkeley Republican who represents the Kasers in the State House, would require bullies and their parents to attend a handful of counseling sessions provided by the school district.
A student found guilty of bullying would face an indefinite suspension if he or she doesn’t attend at least five counseling sessions or if the bully’s parent doesn’t sit in on at least two of the sessions.
Rivers says his proposal takes aim at the underlying behavioral problems that contribute to the state’s bullying troubles.
The three-term legislator’s proposal comes more than a year after a WalletHub study found only eight states have a bigger bullying problem than South Carolina. No state has a higher percentage of high school students who skip school because they fear bullies, that study found.
School districts across South Carolina reported 2,571 incidents of bullying to the state Education Department during the 2015-16 school year, the most recent year for which data is available. That figure is up from the 1,082 bullying reports in 2014-15 but down from 2,790 incidents in 2013-14.
Bullying can have a significant impact on its victims, who often suffer from depression and anxiety disorders and face a higher risk of drug abuse and suicide.
Late last month, bullying at White Knoll Middle School led a 12-year-old Lexington County boy to commit suicide, his mother said.
Last November, an 11-year-old bullying victim in Hampton County shot and killed herself after telling her friends she couldn’t “do this anymore.” She was in sixth grade.
Bullying has left Sarafrances with a sense that she is somehow “dumber” than her classmates because dyslexia keeps her from reading as quickly, Kaser said. The second-grader is seeing doctors for her anxiety.
‘Best course of action?’
S.C. schools Superintendent Molly Spearman is conceptually on board with any attempt to curb bullying, spokesman Ryan Brown said. But the state Education Department is concerned with how Rivers’ bill tries to reach that goal.
“While it is important to hold both the student and parent accountable, we know that many parents work two and three jobs, making scheduling difficult,” Brown said. “Holding the student out of school — and, thus, not receiving any education — may not be the best course of action.”
A earlier, tougher version of Rivers’ proposal, which would have expelled school bullies, failed to gain traction in the State House during the 2015-16 legislative session.
Rivers said he softened his approach this time around in an attempt to curry more support from his colleagues. Still, he said, it is important that the bully’s parents be present and involved in the discipline process.
“I understand that some parents do work, but their child is probably their biggest investment,” Rivers said. “If their child is inflicting pain on someone else’s child, that’s a problem. It’s worth it for the parent to see what’s going on with their child, what their child is thinking, why they’re bullying another child. ... The parents are the ones who will enforce it and bring the proper discipline at home.”
Rivers said he regularly fields calls from constituents whose kids are targets for school bullies. Some, like the Kasers, wind up switching schools, if they can afford the hassle. Others need help pushing school officials to act, Rivers said.
School administrators typically say they are addressing the issue, Rivers said. “However, hearing from the parents, it’s not happening. They’re just not seeing the resolution.”
A.C. Corcoran officials met and emailed regularly with Dawn Kaser about Sarafrances’ bullying, documents provided to The State show.
The school kept track of Sarafrances’ complaints, noting when an administrator or teacher had met with the offender, documents show. The documents do not detail whether or how the bullies were punished, aside from one case last fall where a student was removed from Sarafrances’ class.
Kaser said the school often made excuses for the bullies but did not seem to have the same sympathy for Sarafrances.
“She is still not wanting to be at school, and she doesn’t like computer class,” Kaser emailed one of Sarafrances’ teachers on Nov. 9. “I am so frustrated that she has missed four days of school due to bullying.”
A district spokesman declined to comment further.
In December, however, Kaser received the school board’s approval to send her daughter to another elementary school in Mount Pleasant. Kaser says Sarafrances’ improving peace of mind is worth the 18-mile commute.
“She loves her new school.”