published Tuesday, May 15th, 2012

East Ridge talks gangs, school bullies

Days after a student falsely claimed that she was raped at East Ridge Middle School, law enforcement and education officials answered questions from concerned parents about safety and gang activity at the school, emphasizing that though there are gang members in East Ridge and even some gang activity in schools, the problems at the school are minor and no different from those all middle schools face.

"If you hear something about us that's true, it's probably true at Ooltewah, too," Principal Steve Robinson said.

Responding to several questions about gang activity and bullying, East Ridge Detective Daniel Stephenson said, "I can count on one hand the number of times I've responded to a call at this school," and added that most calls were rumors.

Gang activity at the school is largely limited to graffitied posturing, officials agreed.

"We can't get them to write in English class, but they'll write on the bathroom walls," Robinson said.

After the community forum, eighth-grader Morgan See said that bullying is more likely to appear as mean Facebook rumors than actual fistfights, and girls are more likely than boys to cause problems.

Robinson said the school could get by with one fewer vice principal if Facebook didn't exist.

But some parents are still concerned with violence. Michael and Julie Tullis said their fifth-grader visited the school recently, and when the door opened, there were two kids fighting and two others kissing.

Chris Fillers, a youth pastor at South Seminole Baptist Church, said a sixth-grader in his ministry told him of another student with a knife, gun and cigarette lighter, though it's unclear if he was a true threat or just trying to look tough.

Trying to build a reputation and become popular with older students is a major motivator for bullies and wannabe gang-bangers, officials said. The challenge at East Ridge Middle is to make every student, bullied or not, see bullying as uncool.

"All cruelty springs from weakness," a poster in the school hallway says.

Morgan said school officials are doing a good job to reinforce that message, citing biweekly lessons about what to do when confronting a bully.

However, the onus of educating students about violence falls on family members. If parents haven't talked about gangs by the time their children go to middle school, they're late, Stephenson said.

Teachers were quick to praise the school and say that it is a healthy environment for students.

"I feel as safe here as I would anywhere else," said teacher Janice Kerley.

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