High-spirited homecoming festivities at Vashon High School were marred last week by an incident of bullying that involved the election of homecoming royalty for one of the lower grades.
In an interview on Monday, VHS Principal Danny Rock defined the incident as that of “a student being maliciously voted onto homecoming court in a way that was meant to be unkind,” but declined to further describe or characterize the incident.
Likewise, The Beachcomber has opted, out of concerns for privacy and safety, not to name specific students.
Rock said he would discuss the issue in an upcoming meeting with leaders of the associated student body (ASB), planned for Oct. 10. One possible consequence of the incident, he said, would be ending the long practice of electing a homecoming court.
“We are going to look at the process and the practice of having homecoming royalties,” he said. “If students are not taking the homecoming elections seriously and instead using them in this unkind way, they’re telling the adults, ‘this isn’t important to us.’ And if students are being harmed in the process, it’s time for us to take a look at whether it is a viable tradition.”
Some islanders learned of the incident on Sunday morning in a heavily commented-on thread on Vashon-Maury Parents and Youth Facebook page that was deleted several hours later in the day. In the thread, posters — many of whom identified themselves as parents who were opposed to bullying — revealed personal details about students involved in the incident and speculated on motivations for the bullying, suggesting it was an act of retaliation for offensive comments the bullied student allegedly made. The thread also included misinformation about disciplinary actions planned by the school against the sophomore class.
On Monday, Rock spoke with The Beachcomber shortly before a special assembly that had been called for freshman and sophomores at the school. He said that at the assembly, he would talk to the students about their collective responsibility for the incident. Another assembly was planned for Wednesday for juniors and seniors.
“When we have a cultural problem, and a group participates in it as opposed to individuals, it is better to address the group,” Rock said, adding that he planned to communicate with parents about the incident later that day by email.
“We are urging parents to talk to individual students,” he said. “Students are very aware and savvy as to how important it is to avoid bullying, but recognizing bullying as it happens and what their role is in it is not always obvious to young people.”
District Superintendent Slade McSheehy told The Beachcomber on Tuesday that he hopes the homecoming court incident is an episode that becomes a teaching tool for the district’s students.
“What comes out of these experiences, the best part of it is we get to learn more and we get to create more opportunities to learn empathy and what it’s like to live in someone else’s shoes,” he said. “Moving forward, we’re going to continue to work in … social-emotional learning. We feel optimistic that the students will be better for it.”
The homecoming court elections had been decided on an online platform with the option for students to choose any student from their respective grades as royalty, Rock explained. A majority of students in one of the lower grades had chosen the bullied student, he said, after a whispering campaign that had spread throughout the class.
The student body leaders and staff responsible for coordinating the election process had no awareness of the whisper campaign, he said, nor had he personally known the results of the election before they were announced.
Prior to the unfolding of this incident, it had been a remarkable homecoming week, Rock said, crediting strong leadership from ASB leaders and enthusiastic participation by students.
“This year was the most school spirit and coordinated activities I’ve seen since I’ve been here,” he said.
That morning of Homecoming, the entire student body had joined together in an hour-long, ear-splitting homecoming assembly that included volleyball competitions and dance-offs between the grades, as well as a raucous all-school sing-a-long as the school band played Neil Diamond’s “Sweet Caroline” — a classic song that the band had only added to their repertoire that morning.
Routines by the cheer squad and lip-synching teams served up an array of hip-hop moves to recorded music that the students’ grandparents would definitely not have recognized.
And at the moment of the announcement of the royalty elections, there was no hint — at least to an outside observer — that one of the elections had been the result of a bullying campaign, as the students enthusiastically cheered each of the princes and princesses as their names were announced.
The sprawling, over-the-top assembly, orchestrated with precision by senior student body co-presidents Alexia Taisey and Talia Spurlock, was a precursor to the big events of homecoming weekend — a home football game on Friday night, followed by a Saturday night dance at the school.
By the time the Vashon Pirates took the field against the Port Townsend Redhawks at 6:30 p.m. Friday, the bleachers were packed with teenaged boosters, pumping green and gold pom poms into the air as the band continued to perfect “Sweet Caroline.”
The Pirates never really gained momentum against the Redhawks, eventually losing to their more polished rivals, though they did stage a two-touchdown, fourth-quarter comeback that narrowed the score to 38-14. But winning or losing didn’t seem to matter much to the crowd, who kept on cheering until the clock ran out on the game.
More than 70 percent of the student body showed up for the homecoming dance the next night, Rock said on Monday, as he discussed the bullying incident.
“So here’s this unfortunate incident, but it sat inside the context of an incredibly successful homecoming week,” Rock said. “We must respond to bullying clearly and quickly, but it doesn’t negate all the amazingly good things that happened during homecoming week.”
Late in the evening, on Monday, Rock sent an email to all VHS parents, describing the assembly during which he discussed it with students.
“At our assembly today I called out the shaming and bullying behavior for what it was, and made sure to let our students know that we can do better,” the email said, in part, going to explain that at the assembly, many students had wanted to discuss their motivations for their actions. “It took a while but I believe we came around to a clear understanding of how to handle the misbehavior of others without resorting to bullying behavior.”
To ninth and 10th grade students, Rock had sent an email earlier in the day, saying he had walked away from the assembly proud to be their principal.
“I can tell that a great deal many of you care about justice, equality, kindness, and the well being of your fellow students,” he wrote. But the email also contained a strict admonition: “We will not shame or bully people, period.”