A climate study administered to students, staff and families of the Winona public school district found problems with bullying, harassment and derogatory comments and the reporting of such behaviors, according to raw results reviewed by the Daily News and report summaries provided to the school board Thursday.

The study, taken by 1,119 students in grades 3-12, 625 families and parents and 110 teachers, was adapted from a questionnaire used by the Southern Poverty Law Center. Director of learning and teaching Maurella Cunningham, who delivered the results to the board, said she expects it to be repeated yearly and has considered sending it both at the beginning and the end of a school year.

In grades three and four, 38% of respondents reported hearing “students bullied for being different” at their school. In the upper grades, 67% reported hearing a student tease or ridicule another student, and 76% said they’ve heard a slur, epithet or other derogatory words toward a classmate.

“We have an anti-bullying policy. Where are the gaps in that? Because this is pretty disheartening,” said board member Michael Hanratty. “We have a policy to try to limit this and it doesn’t seem to necessarily be the most effective way.”

Official reports of bullying have dropped district-wide, from 52 reports in 2010-11 to 16 reports so far this school year.

And while 88% of third- and fourth-graders said they knew who to talk to about bullies, less than half of the respondents in grades 5-12 said they knew how to report harassment or racial abuse, and only 41% said they would feel comfortable doing so.

New board member Jim Schul said the results clearly demonstrate a need for more counseling staff, an issue he said people tend to “get distracted” from.

“In the 2019-20 school year, I want to be sure counselors are actually counseling,” Schul said. “I don’t want them doing administrative tasks, I don’t want them doing the work of a transportation coordinator. I want them actually counseling.”

Though none of the other Big 9 schools have administered the same survey, Cunningham said she plans to reach out to the SPLC and ask to review other districts’ results to see how WAPS compares. The information could be helpful in parsing what may be common in all schools — like roughly half of respondents saying they like going to school — or what issues are unique to Winona.

The district implements a laundry list of initiatives meant to address negative behaviors, like anti-bullying classroom curriculums, school-linked mental health services and development through Miller Mentoring.

But the study results have prompted the creation of focus groups for students, teachers and families to address the specific issues brought to light, Cunningham said. At least one iteration of that is in partnership with Engage Winona and students from Winona State University.

“I want to hear the voices of students who have voices but don’t typically get heard,” she said.

Board chair Nancy Denzer expressed concern that the phrasing of the study’s questions did not allow for more positive evaluation of the district. She also noted that any bullying report means that students know where to go and how to report it.

The data from the study, which was available for respondents from late January to early February, was included in the school district’s spring report to the state Department of Human Rights. WAPS was identified by the department last year for racial disparities in suspensions and other disciplinary actions and is being monitored on their steps to correct the issue.

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Madeline Heim covers K-12 & higher education in Winona. A 2018 graduate of the University of Wisconsin-Madison, she previously interned at the Wisconsin Center for Investigative Journalism and the suburban community arm of the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel.

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