SIOUX CITY | The mother of a Sioux City autistic boy is speaking out against what she describes as cruel online bullying of her son in which other students reportedly voted on whether her 15-year-old son should be killed.
Kristi Lizzy Rice said the incident occurred in late December after her son, Spencer Rice, broke up with his girlfriend. She reported the harassment to school officials on Jan. 3. Disappointed with the way the district handled the case, she pulled her son out of North on Monday, and is now considering a transfer to another school.
"All students deserve safe schools and the support to reach their best potential," she told The Journal Friday.
Her concerns were lodged 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.
Citing privacy laws, Superintendent Paul Gausman said the district could not comment on Rice's case specifically, including whether any students have been disciplined for their role in the online poll.
In a statement Friday, Gausman pointed out all "instances of bullying are investigated and acted upon immediately when we are made aware of any challenges."
The district's Anti-Bullying/Harassment/Hazing policy states "pupils and personnel should not engage in harassing behavior," including "electronic mail, internet-based communications, pager service, cell phones and electronic text messaging."
After the poll about whether Spencer should be killed was posted, one unidentified respondent suggested he "should kill himself," Kristi Rice said.
Rice said she met with a North principal about the online threat on Jan. 6, and returned to the school on Monday. She said "not one principal could or would meet with us" that day, so she removed Spencer from classes over concerns about his own "safety." Rice said she doesn't think the girl her son broke up with had anything to do with the poll.
Kristi Rice also filed a complaint with the Sioux City Police Department
"When the mother made contact with the school resource officer (that) she wanted to pursue charges, a report of potential harassment via social media was made that day and was sent over to the Woodbury County juvenile division for legal review and possible charges," Police Sgt. Terry Ivener said. “It’s up to them to decide if there’s enough for the case to proceed, whether charges are to be filed or basically dismissed,” he added.
The county attorney office's did not immediately respond to the Journal's request for comment Friday.
Spencer Rice, who has an Individualized Education Plan, and also wears a Project Lifesaver anklet, was also previously bullied at school, his mother said, citing a "significant" event in 2011. The youngest of her four children to attend Sioux City schools, Kristy Rice said her daughter, Delaney, also was bullied in 2012.
Kristy Rice spoke of pride after Spencer was named Star of the Week at North, for reading 6,000 pages in a nine-week quarter.
"He is a genuinely good, kind-hearted soul who simply likes to be left alone to read, draw, program or game. He is gentle, but the strongest person I know," she said. "He has endured so much, from brain surgeries to 35 hours per week of physical therapy, occupational therapy."
She is looking into transferring him to one of the district's two other high schools.
"We visited and we're extremely impressed with West. We live by East, but unfortunately, they are currently using substitutes for their autism program, so we can't consider that," she said.
The family is also considering a private school such as Bishop Heelan.
Rice said numerous people are supporting the family, speaking out on social media about the bullying, and sending messages to school officials and even state lawmakers. Rice said she's heard "hundreds of 'me too' stories" of current and former students who were bullied in Sioux City and other cities.
"We need as a community to protect not only the victims, but not allow the school district to sweep all these incidents under the rug...While I am sad to be in this storm, I believe we have found hope and so many families wanting to work for real solutions, not just paper policies," she said.
"Bully," which chronicled several bullying victims across the country, gained international acclaim for its unflinching, and often heartbreaking, portrayal of the issue.
In the aftermath of the "Bully" film, school officials took a series of actions to ensure parents they were taking the issue of bullying seriously.
Gausman, the district superintendent since 2011, said pupils receive frequent reminders of the need to support each other to maintain a good learning environment, in a tough time for coming of age, including one as recently as November.
All 1,100 of the district's freshmen also were shown the documentary "Audrie & Daisy," at the Orpheum Theatre, Gausman noted in Friday's statement. Produced by Sioux City native Cindy Waitt, the film highlights the issue of sexual assault in high schools.
"The documentary takes a hard look at American teenagers who are coming of age in this new world of social media bullying," Gausman said in the statement. "Following the viewing of this documentary, students engaged in meaningful conversations guided by counseling staff to learn about proper cyber use, coping with cyber bullying and how to support one another."