When Sandra Tompkins asked her 8-year-old son Dakota about trying to work things out at Aspen Community Magnet School, he curled up in a ball and turned away from her.
"'Don't ever talk to me about Aspen,'" Tompkins says he told her.
Tompkins withdrew Dakota from Aspen on Sept. 16. The day before, he ran to his dad in the parking lot after school, crying.
Dakota told his parents that he had been waiting in line in the school gym when he was pushed accidentally into a boy standing behind him. That boy allegedly "started beating up" Dakota, while a girl watching grabbed the aggressor's backpack in an attempt to intervene. Eventually, school staff separated the boys.
On prior occasions, Tompkins says, Dakota had been put in a headlock and thrown to the ground, smacked in the back of the head and verbally abused by fellow Aspen students. He begged to leave the school, but his other options were bleak. Santa Fe Public Schools Superintendent Bobbie Gutierrez wrote Tompkins in an email that the only schools with open spots were three large south-side schools—Kearny, Piñon and Ramirez Thomas elementaries—all in different stages of mandated reforms due to low proficiency scores. Especially after the Aspen experience, Tompkins didn't think driving Dakota to a different side of the district every day to attend a bigger school with a questionable reputation made much sense.
The Tompkinses started home-schooling Dakota out of desperation; they can't afford private school. Brendon Tompkins quit his job to stay home with his son and lost his health insurance.
"Why is Dakota slipping through the cracks and the bullies, the ones who have behavioral problems, are allowed to stay in school?" Sandra Tompkins asks.
Lina Germann, who has been substitute teaching at schools throughout the district for the past three years, says she's on "high alert" at Aspen, "expecting a kid to be hurt any second." She says that Aspen seems to have a higher concentration of kids with behavior problems, and that the large campus—a former middle school—precludes close supervision. Pushing and shoving are rampant, and kids turn up with injuries on the playground.
"The tension in that school is high," Germann says. "It's high among the students; it's high among the teachers; the teachers are tense and exhausted."
Parent Anna Heiniger transferred her daughter out of Aspen after one year, but as a PTA member at Alvord Elementary, one of the schools that was consolidated into Aspen, she was involved in the school transition and was active in school programs. She says the parents of a fifth-grader who was being "pantsed" every day pulled their child from the school after the administration wasn't able to address the problem. The parents of a kid with a medical condition causing baldness, who was "teased mercilessly," did the same.
Heiniger says Aspen Principal Danny Peña has a policy of "coddling" bullies because he sympathizes with their poor home situations. As a result, she says, the bullied, instead of the bullies, pay.
"[Dakota] shouldn't have to be moved at all," SFPS Board of Education Member Steve Carrillo says. "It should be the bully… My understanding is the [bully] is still in Aspen, and odds are, if history is any indication, and unless there's serious repercussions to his behavior, that doesn't just magically change overnight."
Peña won't say what action was taken against the kid who bullied Dakota, citing privacy concerns. But he says Aspen has bully-awareness programs to teach kids how to deal with such incidents, and intervention plans for troublemakers. Gutierrez also says the district has numerous anti-bullying programs. Bernice Garcia Baca, a counselor at Aspen, says she felt intervention with Dakota and the bully was satisfactory, and she felt the situation was "workable."
“I hope this is as appalling to you as it is to me, knowing my son has been effectively pushed out of school through no fault of his own, due to a failed system,” Tompkins said during the public forum.
"It's hard to always catch [bullying] because kids are always hiding it…I do know [the issue with Dakota] was dealt with, and was it perfect? No," Garcia Baca says.
Meanwhile, the student-transfer logjam that prevented Dakota from moving to an acceptable school suddenly cleared on Oct. 18, at the SFPS BoE meeting. There, Tompkins went public with her story.
"I hope this is as appalling to you as it is to me, knowing my son has been effectively pushed out of school through no fault of his own, due to a failed system," Tompkins said during the public forum. "And the bullies are still at school."
Tompkins says that, after she spoke, Gutierrez approached her and asked if she was still interested in transferring Dakota to Wood Gormley, the South Capitol elementary that had the highest achievement scores in the school district last year. Gutierrez also asked if she and Tompkins had talked about Acequia Madre before—another well-regarded east-side school—and Tompkins replied that they had not, but that it would be another good possibility. The next morning, the principal of Gonzales Community School contacted Tompkins. It, too, had room for Dakota.
"It took me standing up in [a] public forum and bringing it out into the open for them to do something about it," Tompkins says.
Gutierrez denies offering any school to Tompkins except the original south-side options and, later, Gonzales, which she says suddenly became available because the district completed a 40-day census of the schools and realized it had an opening there.
The apparent transfer logjam seemed egregious even to BoE Member Frank Montaño, normally an SFPS administration cheerleader.
"[Tompkins' story] kind of makes me wonder whether or not our transfer policy was so restrictive that it wouldn't remedy a situation like this," Montaño commented at the Oct. 18 meeting. "It seems to me that, if it has been determined that a child is being bullied…transferring them ought to be a pretty easy kind of process."
Under SFPS policy, the superintendent—or assistant superintendent, if the former delegates the responsibility—has the final say on approving transfers. The policy has two provisions for emergency transfers that would seem to apply to a bullying victim—"health reasons" and "severe extenuating circumstances." The policy does not state anything about waiting for completion of a 40-day census.
Carrillo has said that he hopes Aspen, which is just in its second year of operation, eventually works through its growing pains. The school was created under a controversial initiative spearheaded by Gutierrez to save the district money by closing smaller Larragoite, Kaune and Alvord elementaries. (Peña was principal of Kaune, academically the worst performing of the three.) Cobbling together three schools with different cultures, coupled with the upheaval caused by ongoing construction at the site, seemed to create a tumultuous atmosphere at Aspen, Heiniger says.
"We've had a lot of challenges just with the way kids were placed here," Garcia Baca acknowledges, adding that the necessity for kids to walk through a construction zone to reach portables "sets kind of a chaotic feeling."
That's why Dakota's first day at Gonzales, Oct. 26, is only a partial victory, Tompkins says.
"There's kids that need help there," Tompkins says of Aspen. "Dakota wasn't the only one."