After Assault Attempt, West Middle Begins Recovery
"Patch" talked with Hazelwood West Middle School Principal Dr. Allison Klouse about student safety and a local psychologist about how students and families can move forward after an attempted sexual assault in a school bathroom earlier this month.
After a group of four seventh-grade boys attempted to sexually assault a female classmate at Hazelwood West Middle School on May 5, parents and community members were outraged. The community demanded to know how it was able to happen and what the school planned to do to ensure that this type of incident doesn’t occur again.
While new details of the case are unavailable at this time due to pending litigation, Hazelwood West Principal Dr. Allison Klouse told Patch the school is taking a proactive approach to educating the students and keeping them safe at school.
On May 9, Klouse and a counselor went into each individual classroom to meet with students.
“We talked about harassment issues and sexual misconduct,” she said. “We had a conversation about what our current procedures are and what students can do to help with the solution.”
Klouse said that the school’s counselors have been on alert since the incident occurred, and many students have reached out to them to discuss concerns.
“I have had many individual conversations with our students and parents as well,” she said.
Along with district superintendent Dr. Steve Price, Klouse held a parent meeting Monday evening to discuss the issue and relate Hazelwood West's safety plan.
"Dr. Price and I met with parents and addressed their concerns,” Klouse said. “I’ve also been working with our PTSA president to create a safety focus group for parents.”
Klouse said that along with the district’s head of security, several of the district’s office staff has been in the building observing students and the flow of traffic in order to help design a better security plan for the school.
“They are observing to see which areas are properly supervised and which aren’t,” she said. “They are watching and making sure students are doing what they’re supposed to be doing.”
Klouse said that she gets an email each day that tells her which areas are good in terms of supervision, and which need troubleshooting and more staff watching the area. She shares the information with her staff and they work together to develop solutions for the problem areas.
“We have a security officer and a police officer, and we are counting on all of our staff to help,” Klouse said. “Every staff member in this building will ask questions when they see students in hallways, especially when they shouldn't be there.”
She said that the custodial staff is even getting involved, and she expects them to ask students questions when they see them in the hallways.
“We are all asking those questions, and we are going to be really diligent,” she said. “Our students are really receptive and understand that we are just trying to keep everyone safe.”
Klouse said there’s more work to be done, and these changes aren’t short term, but will become standard procedure as the school moves forward. Students are also required to carry their school-issued planners at all times, in part so that staff can easily check their schedules to determine where they should be at any given time.
“I am going to make every effort along with the staff at HWMS to ensure the safety of all of our students,” Klouse said. “I want the community to know that we do work diligently every day to keep them safe, and we continue to find new ways to protect them.”
Keeping Your Kids Safe
Gerald M. Tullman, Ph.D., a clinical psychologist who specializes in family therapy in his St. Louis practice, said parents need to give their children a game plan so that they know exactly what to do if they’re ever involved in a situation like the one that happened at Hazelwood West.
Tullman said his general rule of thumb is “better safe than sorry.” He said he’d rather see students overreact than underreact to uncomfortable situations.
“I’d rather them misinterpret a situation and report it so it can be investigated and let the adults sort it out,” Tullman said. “When in doubt, they should share their concerns with an authority figure—what they’ve seen, what they’ve heard and what they’re concerned about.”
Hazelwood West parents should speak to their kids directly about what happened and explain the details to them, Tullman said.
“Explain how far out of bounds this was, how inappropriate this behavior was and how significant the consequences are going to be for all involved,” he said. “You have to be really direct and come away from the conversation being as sure as you can that they know this is something they shouldn’t even get near.”
He said that parents should ensure that their children understand human sexuality and that they have the “correct” information, rather than knowledge picked up from friends or the media. Parents should teach their kids that if they’re in a situation like the one that recently occurred at the middle school, they should remove themselves immediately and report it to a trusted adult right away, Tullman said.
“The school has a responsibility, but realistically they can only do so much,” he said. “Students need to know that they must go to an authority figure in these situations, even if they just feel threatened.”
Dr. Klouse said that the best advice she could give parents about talking to their kids in this situation is to be honest with them.
“Tell them your thoughts and feelings, and listen and let them get their feelings out,” she said. “Validate their feelings and thoughts.”
Tullman said that the victim in the incident the the “absolute correct thing” in reporting it to the principal. He said it’s important that the students and staff at Hazelwood West offer their support to the victim as they move forward.
“She needs to be reassured by everyone with whom she speaks that she is in no way at fault,” he said. “We don’t want her taking any responsibility or walking around with guilt because she is not in any way responsible for what transpired that day.”
Klouse said she had a town hall meeting with the Hazelwood West student council last week because the council's members expressed a desire to help keep their school safe. All students and staff were invited to attend the after-school meeting.
“We just let them share their thoughts and feelings and tried to validate their feelings,” she said.
In addition to brainstorming safety solutions, Klouse said that many students shared their concerns about the media coverage and public opinion of the school after the incident. They said that they felt the community thought every student at the school was “bad” because of those few who made mistakes.
“The kids want to be a part of the solution,” Klouse said. “They are empowered by that.”
To see an email the district sent out to parents with the new saftey improvements click here to see the local fact here on Hazelwood Patch.