Education

Folsom Cordova schools chief calls for stronger bullying response following suicide

Nonie Reyes-Small, 16, president of the National Alliance on Mental Illness club, signed a pledge to stand up against bullying before she gave out yellow ribbons for suicide prevention before a balloon release for Ronin Shimizu on Tuesday at Folsom High School.
Nonie Reyes-Small, 16, president of the National Alliance on Mental Illness club, signed a pledge to stand up against bullying before she gave out yellow ribbons for suicide prevention before a balloon release for Ronin Shimizu on Tuesday at Folsom High School. rbyer@sacbee.com

Folsom Cordova’s schools chief called Thursday for her district to track bullying victims as they move to different schools and intervene earlier when students are taunted by peers after a 12-year-old student committed suicide last week.

The Folsom Cordova Unified School District is digging through emails and school records, as well as interviewing employees, to determine whether the district responded properly to bullying that Ronin Shimizu suffered in the years before he took his own life.

By his fifth-grade year, Ronin left the elementary school he had attended since kindergarten in an attempt to escape harassment by fellow students, according to family friend Josh Meixner. Ronin later left Folsom Middle School for a home-schooling program for the same reason.

Superintendent Deborah Bettencourt on Thursday told the Folsom Cordova Board of Education that the district needs to track victims of bullying as they move through the district and ensure that they receive the support they need.

“Students transfer from elementary to middle school to high school,” Bettencourt said in an interview prior to the meeting. “We do a good job of (tracking) perpetrators, but not always the victims.”

In the days after Ronin’s death, a grief-stricken community – in public memorials, on social media and at places of worship – has refocused attention on bullying’s scars and how people can work to avoid another tragedy.

Bettencourt said she foresees a broad-based task force of police, students, parents, service groups, educators and clergy to develop steps to attack the problem and create a clearer definition of what constitutes bullying, saying the issue is one for campus and community alike. She will seek more training for all staff, from bus drivers to yard-duty employees, to identify problems.

Bettencourt said she wants to address problems regardless of whether they meet state definitions of bullying.

“While there are playground antics and childhood play, when does it cross the line into bullying?” she said.

Family and friends have said, for Ronin, that line was crossed often and for years.

They said Ronin had been a target of taunts and other verbal abuse starting in elementary school and that he reluctantly left the Jr. Eagles cheer squad in April because of the teasing he absorbed. Small for his age, he loved art, fashion and cheerleading, excelling as the cheer squad’s only boy. He lived with his parents and younger brother in Folsom’s Empire Ranch neighborhood, about three blocks from Russell Ranch Elementary School.

Ronin started kindergarten at Russell Ranch in 2007. Early in his fifth-grade year, he left Russell Ranch for Oak Chan Elementary School 4 miles away. He attended sixth grade at Folsom Middle School, but five months into the 2013-14 school year, the Shimizus opted to home-school their son in what family friends said was a vain attempt to outrun taunts, teasing and bullying.

Tony Peterson, principal at Russell Ranch Elementary during Ronin’s enrollment and now principal at Riverview STEM Academy in Rancho Cordova, said this week he had no indication of problems between Ronin and other students.

“He was a nice kid. He was somewhat quiet,” Peterson said. “He kept to a circle of close friends, but he was active. He liked to be out in the field.”

Asked why the Shimizus transferred their son out of Russell Ranch, Peterson said he did not specifically know. After the family met with Assistant Superintendent For Elementary Curtis Wilson, Ronin transferred to Oak Chan.

“At the very beginning of the fifth-grade year, they had just emailed me and requested a change. As I recall, they wanted to give him a different environment, a different experience,” Peterson said.

The Shimizu family later lodged bullying complaints at Folsom Middle School before removing Ronin. They also had complained that their son was the target of bullying at a previous campus, district officials said.

Folsom Cordova trustees spoke at Thursday’s board meeting about how Ronin’s tragedy had affected them. Often near tears, board President Zak Ford, himself a product of Folsom Cordova schools, spoke poignantly of Ronin’s loss and of his own painful childhood as a victim of bullying.

“The issues that impacted my life the most are ones I don’t like to address. The issue of bullying falls into this category like no other. I was bullied as a boy,” Ford said, calling his years at Rancho Cordova’s Mills Middle School “the worst years of my life. Miserable.”

Ford said his emotional scars healed with time, but he lamented that Ronin will never have that chance.

“It’s extremely unfortunate that Ronin won’t be able to look at his life in 24 years with the same reflection I can with mine,” he said, calling on the district and community to “work in hope that there is and will be an end” to bullying.

“This district needs to find ways to do better. It takes families and the community to instill empathy,” said Vice President Teresa Stanley, at times fighting back tears, calling Ronin’s death “an irreparable end, an irreparable solution.”

“Our children deserve a community that takes positive steps,” Stanley said. “No family should have to lose a child.”

Call The Bee’s Loretta Kalb, (916) 321-1073.

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