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Some parents pull kids from charter school after anti-bullying simulation

November 15, 2013 Updated: November 15, 2013 at 5:55 pm

James Madison Charter Academy has had problems with bullying, but the way Principal Anna Shearer-Shineman chose to deal with it has made some parents so mad they have pulled their children out of the school.

"I understand the goal they had in mind, "said parent Johanna Myers. "But forcing the students to exclude others, that's the administration bullying the kids - because the kids didn't have a choice. My son was really upset."

Myers said she withdrew her three children from the school on Thursday and enrolled them in a traditional public school.

James Madison opened in 2005, has 187 students enrolled in grades kindergarten through sixth, and is the only charter school in Widefield School District 3.

In a Nov. 8 letter to parents, Shearer-Shineman wrote that the school was experiencing behavioral problems in classrooms, specifically "children shunning other students, teasing them and/or calling them names and generally being unkind for no apparent reason."

The letter stated that although corrective measures had been tried, the disciplinary issues continued.

The solution: "Initiate a simulation."

For three days this week, a different group of students at James Madison was shunned because they did not have a required colored sticker.

"Students without the designated sticker will not be allowed to have contact with the other students," Shearer-Shineman wrote.

Each student in fourth, fifth and sixth grades got to be part of the shunned group, which amounted to about one-third of the class each day. Younger students weren't involved, Shearer-Shineman said, because they are learning more age-appropriate lessons, such as teaching how to share in kindergarten and how to be a better friend in third grade.

"Hopefully, this will provide the children with first-hand experience of what it is like to be teased or alienated without reason and curb any further issues," the letter stated. Parents also were encouraged to talk to their children about the experience.

Parent Michelle Kemppainen said the tactic was horribly flawed.

"I felt like they were teaching the kids to bully," she said. "In the DARE program, you don't give the kids drugs and say try it, it's really bad, or you don't have everyone beat up on each other to stop an after-school fight. They know who the bullies are. There's a better way to deal with it."

Shearer-Shineman said students were given parameters before the simulation started, instructing them that they were not allowed to taunt or do other harmful actions.

"We were doing an exclusion piece, and we made that clear from the beginning," she said. "The group was just ignored and not included, and that isolation was enough to give them the idea."

Myers said that didn't seem right.

"If we're going to a teach a lesson, 'an eye for an eye' is not the lesson to be teaching," she said. "It's not an appropriate manner."

Shearer-Shineman, who has been principal at James Madison for eight years said she's used the technique in previous years at the school, the last time in 2011, and it decreased bullying.

"We are a project-based school, so the kids are used to doing hands-on activities. The simulation fits with that," she said. "We are trying to do something to change behavior. I know people say there's always going to be bullying, but that doesn't mean we have to accept it or can't try to stop it."

Kemppainen said she removed her two children from James Madison this week, calling the simulation "the last straw."

"I've always raised my kids to be nice to everyone and don't want them to ignore someone for the day because they don't have a sticker," she said.

Shearer-Shineman said she spoke to students on Thursday, after all had completed the simulation, and talked about what they learned.

"The kids understood why we did it and said they thought it was effective," she said. The principal said she received comments such as, "I will stand up for myself and others," "I won't leave anyone out," "I now know how bullied kids feel," and "I will talk to an adult."

Parent and school board member Jenn Hartzell, who has a son in fourth grade at James Madison, said she supported the exercise.

"I thought it was a good thing to do, just to give everyone an idea of how some may feel to be left out and help them to think twice," Hartzell said. "My son was a little worried at first, but he ended up thinking it was a nice way to learn."

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