CATAWISSA RR — It was an emotional night at Southern Columbia Area as parents and students flooded the G.C. Hartman Elementary auditorium Monday to confront the school board and demand justice for 14-year-old Natalie Bodnar, who committed suicide on Oct. 1 amid reports of extreme bullying.
The meeting began with a moment of silence for Bodnar, and Superintendent Paul Caputo offered his “deepest sympathy” to the her family. Personnel and fiscal business were conducted quickly to open the floor to comment from the crowd of more than 70.
“Sweep it under the rug” was a common expression used by numerous people who spoke out during the 1 1/2 hour meeting, which was moved to the elementary building to accommodate the crowd. A consensus among many parents and students was that the school appeared to be staying silent on the matter in hopes that the circumstances revolving around Bodnar’s death would “disappear.”
Before allowing people to speak, President Mike Yeager said the board was there to listen and obtain information and suggestions for policies. He said there are policies in place regarding bullying and cyber bullying, a comment met by disgruntled laughter and someone yelling “save it.”
Fred Reck was there to “file a complaint” as the first to speak and criticized the district’s “lack of communication” with parents. In an era where parents receive phone calls for fundraisers, sporting events, dances and more, Reck said he was shocked to not receive a phone call or letter addressing Bodnar’s death and the rumors of bullying.
Bodnar died at her home in Catawissa Township.
Reck said his children witnessed firsthand that Bodnar had been “treated differently and meanly by other students,” he said, yet there was no coordinated effort between the middle and high schools to address the issue. Bodnar had been in high school four weeks, and was allegedly bullied throughout middle school.
With no official address from the district on Bodnar and the current police investigation into the bullying accusation, Reck said the district gives off the impression it’s being swept under the rug.
Jodie Novatka Levan, who posted on Facebook last week telling parents to attend the board meeting, broke down in tears while speaking of the impact bullying has not just on students, but on families who feel the school has taken a backseat in addressing the issue.
Levan later asked the board if the cheerleaders had been told to throw out a banner made in honor of Bodnar, claiming she had heard the rumor from students. The board didn’t reply and her voice rose with emotion as she cried, “A child lost their life and why are you trying to hide it? You know you did wrong!”
Kimberly Delvo, a nurse who formerly worked in the district, said she wasn’t there to point fingers but to learn what to do next. She emphasized healthy children learn better, and education will soar if the district invests in the health of the school community.
She asked the board if Suicide Prevention Month was acknowledged in September or if any educational services were provided to staff about student mental health, to which she received no reply.
“Safe schools save lives. Unfortunately, we didn’t save this one,” she said.
‘Catch his cancer’
Parents shared issues they allegedly have faced when contacting administrators about their children being bullied. One parent accused a teacher of bullying, saying his daughter was asked by the teacher in front of her class if she was a boy or girl because of her short haircut. The parent said they contacted Principal Jim Becker many times and was told the complaint was passed on to a faculty supervisor and provided no further information.
Another parent stirred up a response from the crowd as he told the board how kids have bullied his son, a leukemia survivor, for having had cancer, going as far as saying they don’t want to be near him “because they say they’ll catch his cancer.”
Crisis intervention specialist Lori Bardo said she didn’t wish to point out what was lacking, but rather say there is a solution and parents must be part of developing a plan to end bullying. Rich kids and athletes are overlooked as bullies and parents are told there isn’t a problem when there is, she said.
“We’re watching people lose lives,” Bardo said as she offered to work with experts to come up with statistics for the board on physical vs. mental bullying.
Yeager asked Bardo and several other parents to leave their names and contact information so they can participate in creating policies.
Students and friends of Bodnar expressed their grief and shared stories of how bullying had personally impacted them. A former student claimed coaches and football players target certain kids and harass them and asked the board to address the athletes.
Alexis Zanini estimates at least 96 percent of students knew who was bullying Bodnar and what was being done, but no one, including herself, spoke up for fear of what the students would do to them.
Several students shared how bullying within the district resulted in their entering cyber school because they felt Southern wasn’t protecting them.
Students and parents seemed hopeful over Yeager’s invitation to participate in policy meetings, with many approaching the board after the meeting. While a few stormed out as emotions rose throughout the evening, many parents who spoke encouraged others to participate in meetings.
Delvo added a last thought for the evening, saying, “They’re not perfect. The fact is they’re kids. We’re adults. That makes us responsible.”
The following personnel items were approved: addition of Walter Bestko to the K-12 art substitute list; resignation of Jill Zanolini from position of school social worker, effective Oct. 31; Tiffany Bloom as co-advisor for Middle School Student Council at an annual salary of $800.99 to be shared with Amy Phillips; employment of Heather Stine as part-time paraprofessional effective Oct. 15.
The following fiscal items were approved: a budgetary transfer of $80,000 to the athletic fund; transfer of all invest funds in the amount of $211,397.25 and buildings and grounds funds in the amount of $100,000 to the general fund to pay final invoices on the wastewater treatment plant improvement project; the purchase of 36 manual roller shades in the amount of $4,680 from Libby Window Treatments for the elementary and high school buildings.