South Carolina

Mom stormed into SC school to confront child’s classmates over bullying. She was arrested

Jamie Rathburn, of Simpsonville, who was arrested on May 20, 2019 after she confronted students at Greenbrier Elementary School about bullying her son was experiencing, has become an advocate for bullying prevention.
Jamie Rathburn, of Simpsonville, who was arrested on May 20, 2019 after she confronted students at Greenbrier Elementary School about bullying her son was experiencing, has become an advocate for bullying prevention. Matt Burkhartt/The Greenville News

Frustrated by what she believes was bullying of her third-grade son, with fewer than three weeks left of school, Jamie Rathburn entered Greenbrier Elementary School and emotionally confronted his classmates.

She left the scene and was arrested three days later, when she was charged with disturbing schools and booked into the Greenville County Detention Center before being released on a personal recognizance bond, according to a police report.

Rathburn said she regrets her actions but remains concerned about bullying for her son and other children, and she said she’s disappointed in the response she’s gotten from the Greenville County school district.

The Greenville County Sheriff’s Office said deputies were made aware of the May 17 incident after Rathburn posted a 6-minute, 44-second “video rant” on Facebook. Rathburn admitted on video that “she snuck into the school and confronted kids that she estimated to be 9 years old,” according to the report.

The video has since been removed.

Rathburn said she was a “class mom” so people at the school knew her from bringing in supplies for parties and events.

In the video, Rathburn said she wasn’t sure which boy she was looking for, so she wanted them to know that “she was not playing around and that they better stop messing with her kid,” the report said.

This bullying explainer that defines what bullying is, who is affected by it, and how prevention is possible.

‘I owe the parents, the children and the staff an apology,’ arrested mom says

The investigating deputy described accessing the school’s security video and seeing the suspect enter the school during morning drop-off. His report said she was able to walk in through the school’s front door without signing in at the office and that she ignored signs telling guests that they must be signed in to enter.

The deputy said he watched Rathburn on video walk through the school and up to her child’s classroom, where students had lined up on both sides of the hall waiting for class to begin.

There was no audio on the video, so the deputy said he couldn’t tell what the suspect was saying, but he said he saw her “lift her finger in a pointing manner and circle around as if making sure all the kids heard her and were listening.”

Written statements from teachers who witnessed the incident said they heard screaming and saw the suspect “pointing her finger at the kids and getting in their faces.”

One teacher wrote that she heard the suspect yelling about “not knowing who was bullying her son but that she was going to find them and their moms.” Another teacher’s statement to police said that once he was able to get the suspect into his classroom, she “cursed him repeatedly,” then stormed out of the room before administrators could get there.

Rathburn was arrested on May 20, according to the report.

Rathburn said she regretted “allowing emotions to control” her behavior.

“I am absolutely ashamed of myself for the actions of walking up into that school,” she said in an interview with The Greenville News. “You know, I owe the parents, the children and the staff an apology for that. Absolutely, it was wrong. But honestly, I don’t know how I could have gotten my message across any other way.”

After the incident, Rathburn was asked to remove her Facebook video and was placed on a trespass notice for all Greenville County schools, meaning she isn’t allowed on school property.

“I can’t go eat lunch with my children,” she said. “I can’t watch them on field day. As class mom, that’s devastating.”

Beth Brotherton, director of communications for Greenville County Schools, said the doors to the school were open at the time Rathburn entered because it was before the 8 a.m. morning bell. She said parents are allowed to enter the school with their kids only for the first three days each school year.

In response to the incident, Greenbrier, which calls itself the “school of kindness,” has added a second staff member to work the front door in the morning about 10 feet back from the entrance to catch parents who may need to sign in, Brotherton said.

Mom’s frustration grows over alleged bullying in Greenville County Schools

Rathburn first sent an email to her son’s teacher in December, she said. One of her son’s classmates had picked on him about his hair, she alleged.

“Picking becomes bullying really quickly nowadays, and I’ve taught my kids not to tolerate it, so before something transpires could you address it,” Rathburn asked in an email she shared with The Greenville News.

But classmates continued to bully her son throughout the school year, she said. She said he said he was called names, hit with a computer and jerked backwards off a slide by his throat at one point. He had bad days at school about three days every week, Rathburn said.

After one incident where a student was allegedly making faces at her son, a teacher said he told Rathburn’s son to “ignore him, stay away and be the bigger man, and I think it will stop,” and the teacher offered to speak with Rathburn if she had further concerns, according to an email Rathburn shared.

But by May, Rathburn’s frustration reached a boiling point. She told administrators at Greenbrier that she was considering reporting them for not addressing the bullying situation, she told The Greenville News and wrote in an email to Brian Sherman, the assistant to the superintendent for the school district. She said that in response to her complaints, administrators separated her son on the playground so they could more easily watch him.

It was the next day that Rathburn entered the school before the morning bell.

Rathburn said she does not know if her son’s alleged bullies have been disciplined.

Sherman said he could not comment on Rathburn’s case.

Between June 2016 and June 2019, Greenville County Schools received 1,884 anonymous telephone calls and email reports of bullying or threats in addition to 111 calls to the 864-45-BULLY hotline, said Brotherton.

Brotherton said every student in the county who was issued a Chromebook from grades 3 through 12 has a button they can click to anonymously report bullying. During the 2018-19 school year, 185 reports came that way.

Sherman handles issues of bullying that are not resolved at the school level. He said bullying “crosses all economic lines, gender lines, demographics.”

A challenge for schools is that people often do not understand what constitutes bullying, Sherman said.

Clemson professor Susan Limber researches bullying and is part of the Department of Youth, Family & Community Studies. Bullying has three criteria, Limber said: it is aggressive, unwanted behavior; it involves a power imbalance, either real or perceived; and it is repeated over time.

Bullying prevention in the Greenville County school district

During the school year, Rathburn said, her son started having “random bouts of depression,” his grades were impacted, he tried to make excuses to avoid going to school and he woke up with nightmares.

Rathburn said at first he would tell her what happened but stopped when nothing changed. She said she still knew something was wrong, though, because he “wears his heart on his sleeve.”

Rathburn said she experienced bullying firsthand when she was younger, and she said she attempted suicide at the age of 13 while dealing with the effects of bullying.

“I was becoming a statistic because nobody listened to me,” Rathburn said. “I can’t let that happen to my child. I don’t know when I should be concerned about these issues, but I feel like it’s now because in five years it’s too late.”

Rathburn said she hoped to gather her son and his alleged bullies in a room to talk.

Limber, however, cautions against that kind of mediation. She said that approach can be harmful and traumatizing for the child being bullied. She said prevention involves changing culture schoolwide.

Rathburn said that when she and her husband asked the school for documentation about their son’s situation, they were told they could not see anything because it would pertain to another child and that disclosure could violate privacy laws.

“I’m frustrated with the children’s actions, but at the end of the day I’m angry with the adults involved in this situation, because we are the ones with the power to stop this,” Rathburn said.

Her frustration led her to create a Facebook page called Moms Over Bullies, which has 82 followers.

Sherman said all Greenville County school parents receive information on bullying at the beginning of the school year. In 95% of cases, the issues can be resolved at the school level once a parent contacts a teacher, he said. If issues persist, parents can complete a form that necessitates an investigation and a response from the school system within 10 days.

Teachers and administrators watch training videos on harassment and bullying annually, Sherman said.

Sometimes deciphering what happened in a specific situation can be difficult, especially when kids provide differing statements, Sherman said. Some of the worst bullies are also those who have been bullied, Sherman said.

When officials cannot determine what happened, they ask everyone at school from janitors to administrators to help keep an eye on kids, Sherman said.

The worst thing schools can do is inadvertently punish the kid who was being bullied, said Sherman.

School officials do their best, and they’re striving to do better and remain vigilant, he said.

“We have 91 schools,” Sherman said. “Most of our principals make 200 to 300 decisions a day. Anybody making 300 decisions a day will make mistakes.”

In cases where bullying is caught, interventions vary depending on the ages and cognitive development of the students. Sometimes a counselor will conduct role-playing activities to help teach students how to handle situations. Brotherton said this was the first year with a mental health counselor at every school in the county.

In other cases, students may be disciplined under the school system’s code of conduct, which lays out punishments based on the severity and frequency of infractions, Sherman said.

Rathburn said she met with Sherman on May 28 but felt unsatisfied with the response to her concerns. She is considering homeschooling her kids next year.

“I don’t know if what I’m doing is right or wrong, but what I do know is I have to do my best,” she said. “My one job that’s more important than anything else in this life is to make sure that they are better than me, to make sure that they are better than my husband, to make sure they have had a better upbringing and outlook on life than what we had.”

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