SIOUX CITY | Spencer Rice has missed an entire month of his sophomore year, staying home rather than return to North High School, where some students bullied him online in late December.
"I don't want to go back. They lied to us and I am honestly terrified," said Spencer, who is autistic.
Since the discovery of an online poll that asked whether Spencer should be killed, his mother, Kristi Rice, has battled Sioux City school district administrators in her quest to create a safe environment for her son.
Kristi Rice said she, Spencer and his older siblings are frustrated by district "stonewalling" on what they see as two simple requests -- providing Spencer with a new teacher's aide and approving a transfer to West High School, where the family believes he would find a more supportive environment.
"You are not going to bully me into sending my kid into a school where somebody wants to kill him," Kristi Rice said.
Beyond that, Kristi said she wants to change the procedure for parents to address the bullying of their children. She contends school district officials, led by Superintendent Paul Gausman, are more concerned at fending off negative publicity than making sure there is a process for parents to work with administrators to get to the bottom of bullying charges.
She contends there is "a secret code, a secret handshake" where parents are kept in the dark.
"Why do we have to go through something so freaking heinous?" Kristi said.
In a statement, Gausman strongly asserted that bullying incidents get a full review.
"Instances of bullying are always investigated and acted upon immediately when we are made aware of any challenges. Building leaders and the District’s Student Services and Equity Education Department often serve as the first point of contact when concerns are brought forth," Gausman said.
Citing federal privacy laws, Gausman said the district could not comment on Rice's specific case, including whether any students have been disciplined for their role in the online poll.
"Due to the allegations brought forth recently, I personally reviewed cases from recent months specifically. I can with great certainly assure our community and the families that we serve that every case that was brought forth was addressed within 24 hours by either the principal and/or the Director of Student Services and Equity Education," Gausman said.
Kristi Rice bristles at that, saying she wants more clarity.
"They hide behind the privacy law -- 'We can't really tell you what happened, but know we are handling it.' They lull you into this false sense of security, that they are working with the police," Kristi said.
Tired of striking out with administrators, Kristi is considering bringing up the matter at a future school board meeting. She said she isn't sure Gausman has shared full details of her son's story with the seven-member board.
"There is a lot to be fixed here. We can't fix what we don't acknowledge," she said.
Gausman said the district is highly transparent, since resources are present for parents to file a complaint and read the district's anti-bullying policies on the school's website, at www.siouxcityschools.org/anti-bullying-harassment-hazing.
A LOST SEMESTER?
In an interview Tuesday, Kristi and Spencer Rice said the time away from school has had a derogatory effect on Spencer.
"I have a feeling it will be a lost semester," Spencer said.
His mother added, "Spencer has missed so much school. He has regressed. Initially, he was down to one word answers and really was not engaging at all, but, with time, we are seeing some improvement."
"Most of the time I just spend on my computer on coding," Spencer chimed in, looking up cryptocurrencies, a new topic he is delving into, so as "not to lose my thirst for knowledge."
"Being stuck at home, just looking up at the ceiling, it is maddening. I am not a person who does nothing in one place all day," he said.
Kristi Rice said North High officials, a few days ago, sent home backlogged coursework. She called that an unhelpful step that has caused too much stress for Spencer to handle.
"They literally dumped three and a half weeks of work on a kid who hasn't been in school since Jan. 3," Kristi said. "When we have a tutor or an instructor, we will do it. We don't expect the other 14,000 kids in the district to do work without an instructor."
Spencer, 15, has been on an Individualized Education Plan with special education elements. He wears a Project Lifesaver anklet and has had a host of health issues, including brain surgery at one point. He has done physical, occupational, art and horse therapies.
"I need help ensuring his absolute safety at school. Despite his disabilities, he is a brilliant, gentle soul who deserves so much better," his mother said.
"WE COULD HAVE RESOLVED THIS THE WEEK IT HAPPENED"
The Rices are working with a school district that has claimed to have made major strides in combating bullying after attracting national attention for the 2011 film, "Bully," which featured an East Middle School student being tormented by peers.
In the aftermath of the award-winning film, school officials took a series of actions to ensure parents they were taking the issue of bullying seriously. Gausman said those have continued this school year.
In the cyber bullying incident in December, Kristi Rice said one of the first responses in the online poll questioned the manner in which he should die. On the first day school resumed in January after the poll was posted, Kristi Rice said her son was aggressively threatened as he moved from the bus to the school cafeteria, "but thankfully another student got between them."
Kristi spoke at length about numerous North High and school district officials who have rebuffed her attempts to lodge a police report and make sure the persons responsible for the threat were punished.
"The school misled us into believing the bullies had been suspended and the police were involved," Kristi said.
Sherry Howard-Wilhelmi of Phoenix, Arizona, has been an advocate for children with developmental disabilities for 40 years, and now works for the Arizona Consortium for Children With Chronic Illnesses. Howard-Wilhelmi has known Spencer since was a baby, back when the family lived in Arizona.
Howard-Wilhelmi has been part of Spencer's IEP team for years, so she has sought input after he voluntarily withdrew from North on Jan. 8, according to the family. Howard-Wilhelmi said her talks eventually led her to Gausman on Jan. 15. She said school officials noted they didn't have a signed authorization to talk to her about the incident.
"They are unwilling to talk to a person on the IEP team," Howard-Wilhelmi said.
"They are obstructionist. We could have resolved this the week it happened... They are purposely denying this kid an education."
Gausman said privacy laws won't allow him to address whether Howard-Wilhelmi is approved to work with school officials as per Spencer's IEP. On the question of whether a transfer to West is a possibility, Gausman said, "Details about transfer requests are not public information."
THE BULLY EFFECT WEBSITE
Kristi has taken her concerns beyond the school district. She has filed information about Spencer's saga with Disability Rights IOWA group, a law center for protection and advocacy in Des Moines, in hopes of getting help to facilitate a transfer from North and getting a new aide.
Using social media, Kristi has also touted an open Facebook page someone else created titled The Bully Effect, which she said has seen an outpouring of supportive posts and comments. She said many people writing comments have cited bullying to themselves or their families in the school district.
Kristi said those replies should be considered by district officials, so they can try "to do better by all the kids."
"We don't want to be known as a problem school district, so let's fix it," Kristi said.
SIOUX CITY | Drummer Clayton Ehlers took a deep breath, straightened his shoulders and dug in on Thursday, moving through a three-song set while keeping his fellow Sioux Central High School jazz band members in rhythm at the Morningside College Jazz Festival.
Ehlers later recalled the reaction of his parents, Mike and Michelle Ehlers, of Marathon, Iowa, after he told them this fall he'd be the varsity jazz band drummer.
"Holy cow!" they said.
Ehlers, you see, is an eighth-grader, and the performer with the keys, so to speak, for the musicians who play under the direction of Adam Perry.
An eighth-grader shall lead the high school jazz band?
"I'm nervous, but I try not to show it," said Ehlers, 13. "We have a small school and I know everyone else in the band."
"I had Clayton come in, sit down and read the music," said Perry, describing a meeting before the Rebels' jazz band season began. "Clayton is talented and he showed he could do it. I have confidence in him."
Perry, now in his seventh year at the high school serving the Northwest Iowa communities of Sioux Rapids, Rembrandt, Peterson and Linn Grove, knows what it takes to climb this musical mountain. He played 18 years ago at Aurelia High School when it finished as a runner-up in the Iowa Jazz Championships.
I asked Perry if he remembered who won the title that year.
"Treynor," he answered quickly. "I'll never forget that answer: Treynor."
Following a six-year stint serving the school district at Garretson, South Dakota, Perry, a University of South Dakota alum, returned to Iowa to direct the charges at Sioux Central, where he's the lone band director serving grades 5-12, a professional who often pilots his jazz band through early morning rehearsals, a common practice for coaches throughout Iowa who vie for the time of students who also participate in speech, cheering, basketball, wrestling, show choir, jazz choir, FFA, quiz bowl, debate and more.
"It's me, myself and I," Perry said of the one-man band department.
Having an eighth-grader playing in his jazz band this season doesn't necessarily represent the machinations of a maverick. Perry tabbed trombonist Manuel Menchaca when he was an eighth-grader. Menchaca took a couple of solo turns on Thursday in what will almost surely be his final jazz band season. Which is odd, because he's just a junior.
"I'm graduating early," said Menchaca, who plans to head to the University of Iowa to study cinema.
Graduating early? Why?
"Because I can," Menchaca said with a smile. "I thought about it and I think it's the right decision for me."
Following their set at Eppley Auditorium, Sioux Central students and Perry headed upstairs to play again, a bit more informally this time as clinician Greg Sharp, professor of instrumental music and jazz at Indian Hills Community College in Ottumwa, Iowa, took them through a series of suggestions that, if enacted, could lead the band to a higher performance level.
For example, Sharp asked how many trombonists in the group listen to professional trombone players. He did the same for trumpeters, Ehlers and others. None of the musicians tossed out the name of a player in their discipline.
"If I'd ask about football players, I think you guys would give me names of players you've watched," he said. "You need to do that as musicians: Watch and listen to other musicians, even if it's just five minutes per day. You listen for a while and you'll get better."
Benny Goodman, he noted, the man responsible for two of the songs on Sioux Central's 2018 playlist, was probably more popular than Justin Timberlake back in his prime. Music was, and remains, something cool. It can be in the classroom, too, especially if high school musicians let their guard down and allow it to have an impact on them.
As Sharp spoke, judges Kevin Linder, Greg Forney and Dan Cassidy recorded their remarks and sealed their written comments in an envelope Perry would later open and digest with his students.
The process repeats today for several high schools as the festival wraps up its third day of competition. The event culminates as clinicians Sharp and Easton Stuard, who has recorded 12 albums, present a concert free of charge at 7:30 p.m. in Eppley Auditorium.
Much of the Morningside College Jazz Festival, and jazz fests the past couple of weeks, serve as tune-ups for the Northwest Iowa District Jazz Band Festival on Feb. 19 at Le Mars Community High School.
The goal for many bands, including Sioux Central's, Perry said, is to take all the information from these events and put those comments into practice, allowing a band to hit its stride when state jazz berths are on the line in Le Mars.
"When we got back to school today, the last period (of class) had already started," Perry said. "So, I just kept the kids in the band room and we listened to the judges comments."
A day of learning -- musical and otherwise -- started early, then ended late.
SIOUX CITY | With 3 to 4 inches of snow expected by Friday morning, Sioux City is for the second time this week asking residents to avoid parking on emergency snow routes.
The city is requesting motorists on Friday to refrain from on-street parking in the areas marked with snowflake signs, many of them located downtown, until snow is cleared, as is city policy when more than 2 inches of snow accumulate.
The request comes days after the city tried a new way of pushing snow on its streets to discourage such parking, to little avail. After Monday's 3.2-inch snowfall, rather than forming windrows in the center lanes of the downtown streets, crews pushed the snow into the parallel parking spaces on either side.
The strategy was twofold: Keep the unpopular snow barrier out of the middle of the road and keep people from parking illegally on the sides.
"We thought if we stacked snow in the downtown parking areas, people wouldn't park there," Public Works director Dave Carney said. "That didn't work for us. People just jammed their cars over the snow."
Carney said the city received complaints that motorists couldn't access the meters, and some parked more out in the lanes than near the parking spaces.
This time, he said, the city plans to return to plowing the snow into windrows as usual. But the city is hoping people better catch on not to park in the spots when 2 inches or greater of snow accumulates.
Those in violation with the policy could receive a $30 fine, which is enforceable by police officers, code enforcement staff and parking meter attendants.
"Our biggest thing is, how can we encourage compliance rather than just issuing $30 tickets?" Carney said. "We want people to comply and understand that after we get a 2-inch snowfall downtown, it's a process for us to get the snow removed.
Monday's plan came after the city ran into problems with compliance during a 12-inch snowfall on Jan. 22 that put the city under a snow emergency for much of the week. As city crews had heaped snow into windrows in the middle lanes of the downtown one-way streets, Carney said cars parking in cleared parking spaces downtown hampered plows' ability to travel down the sometimes narrow lanes and to clear the snow for disposal from the streets.
He said the city issued hundreds of tickets to cars parked on emergency routes and those in violation of the odd-even parking guidelines during the five-day snow emergency declared by Mayor Bob Scott.
He said some tickets issued in the first half of the week were voided due to a misunderstanding that cars were allowed park in the angle parking in the 600 and 700 blocks of Douglas Street by Sioux City Hall and the Woodbury County Courthouse.
He said for now, the city is going back to creating windrows. But during another large snow it may again try pushing it into the parking spaces.