Overcrowded Middle School Deepens Adolescent Issues

By on June 13, 2018

Gender-based bullying and taunting are amplified in JHMS’s high-trafficked hallways

Some students say it goes beyond overcrowding, however.

JACKSON HOLE, WY – As the valley’s population has grown, overcrowding has increasingly plagued Jackson Hole schools. Some of that pressure will be alleviated with the opening of the dual-immersion Munger Mountain Elementary School this fall.

However, there is no relief in sight for Jackson Hole Middle School. While staff, administration and the school board work toward a solution, middle school students are struggling.

In a letter to the editor in Planet Jackson Hole’s May 30 issue, seventh grader Clare Eddy articulated some of those problems, particularly around gender-based bullying and taunting. While describing how it feels to walk the middle school hallways, Eddy wrote that classmates “scream things that should cause alarm. They say things such as ‘You bully!’ when somebody barely nudges them, or ‘Wow, so and so is such a whore.’ Or even when someone is being tickled: ‘RAPE!’”

Some of the problems Eddy reported may be related to the school’s overcrowding, said Charlotte Reynolds, information officer for Teton County School District No. 1.

According to Reynolds, 523 students attended the middle school a decade ago. This year, there are 675 students, a nearly 30 percent increase since 2008. Next year, the district projects 739 students will attend JHMS. While the high school is not yet overcrowded, it will start to feel the effects of the ever-growing community. This year’s incoming freshman class is larger than the outgoing senior class by 36 students.


No More Space

The middle school facilities are not equipped for its current student body. There are modular classrooms set up outside, and extra lockers built in the hallways. But now, there’s no more space. “We’ve utilized all spaces in the school to the maximum,” Reynolds said.

Recently, staff presented possible solutions to the board. One proposal suggested building another middle school in Teton Village.

The school—at a $15 million price tag—would not only address overcrowding, but also fill a unique Jackson need. Staff and administrators looked at other ski towns across the country to envision a school that would mostly be attended by students involved in winter sports or who are interested in pursuing careers in the ski or resort industry, Reynolds said.

However, these ideas are still very new. There is a not a timeline for the project yet or details on student eligibility. “A lot of this hinges on identifying the best solution for our district and then funding it. We’ll have to go back to the state and try to figure out state-funding and then other funding options,” Reynolds said.

One demonstrable impact of overcrowding is that teachers are teaching more classes—five out of seven periods when they used to teach four out of six. This contributes to the problems Eddy has reported, as teachers have less capacity to supervise outside of class.

“It just needs to be a more controlled environment,” Eddy told PJH.

Eddy’s experience in overcrowded, chaotic hallways was echoed by seventh grader Emma Dillon.

Dillon frequently hears boys calling girls sluts and whores, and “that’s so gay” and “you’re a pussy” are common insults. These are things she wishes she could stop, but “nobody stands up, not even me, because I’m scared they’ll make fun of me even more so. I don’t want to get in trouble with other students.”

Staff and administrators are aware of some of these issues, Reynolds said. The school works closely with the Community Safety Network and Curran Seeley to provide programming around healthy relationships and substance abuse prevention. They have worked on anti-bullying campaigns, and are creating a restorative justice program to bring together affected students so the harm can be addressed, Reynolds said.

Sexual assault prevention expert Jeff Bucholtz recently spoke to the entire middle school about creating healthy relationships and communities, and avoiding exactly the kind of language described by Eddy and Dillon, including gender-based slurs. In an email, Principal Matt Hoelscher pointed out that “there is a comprehensive curriculum at the middle school that addresses age-appropriate issues” of sexual and relationship health.

But the programming is not sufficient, Dillon said. For example, she has not heard about any anti-bullying initiatives.

In addition, she and her friends were energized by Bucholtz’s presentation, but weeks later, she still hears the same sexist comments in the hallways. And while she has attended sex-ed classes, she said she wishes there was more of a focus on consent, respect and gender equality. As it is, she does not remember hearing about consent in either sixth or seventh grade classes, but only about the risk factors and biology of sex.


Who Gets ‘Dress-Coded’?

Both Eddy and Dillon identified the school dress code as a problem that contributes to bullying and sexism.

The dress code describes nothing about gender or certain types of clothing, it merely disallows clothing that is “immodest” or “disruptive or distracting to school operation.” However, both young women agreed that in practice, it seems that girls are most often “dress -coded.” In addition, one way to make fun of a female student is to tell her she will be dress-coded for her outfit.

“Girls get dress-coded if their shorts are too short or if you can see too much of their stomach or arms,” Dillon said. Her female friend was recently dress-coded for wearing a muscle tee. That same day, Dillon saw a boy wearing a muscle tee and asked if he’d gotten in trouble. He hadn’t. Dress code violations go on PowerSchool, an online platform that students and parents use to check grades, attendance, fines and any disciplinary issues. If multiple violations occur, students can’t participate in certain school activities.

Reynolds said that in fact there were very few dress code violations documented at JHMS this year, and both girls and boys have been referred to the principal or assistant principal. The majority of the violations have been related to graphics on clothing and bare midriffs, she said.


Consequential Behavior

Dillon is passionate about ending gender violence. She recently gave a presentation about sexual violence at the library, for which she won a spot in the middle school’s “Combat the Silence” competition. She and her partner also gave the presentation to her entire class during an assembly.

Issues such as gender-based bullying and unequal enforcement of the dress code could contribute to sexual violence down the road, she said.

“A lot of the times girls are pretty ashamed of being dress-coded. If you get dress-coded, you feel like it’s your fault, like you’re a distraction. Later in life, it could teach boys that it’s your fault if something happens to you because of how you were dressed,” she said.

Part of what helps students stand up against bullying or sexism is seeing teachers do it, Dillon said. She wishes there were more examples of that. Now, for instance, teachers might respond to “you’re a pussy” with “don’t use that language.” She wishes there was more conversation about how such language is hurtful to women.

However, Dillon said there are also many students and teachers who are working to make change. She identified Kelly Kaiser, Michelle Rooks, and Lily Shipley as teachers who model how to stand up against bullying and sexism.

Although overcrowding is contributing to the problems Eddy and Dillon describe, it is not the only cause. Building a new middle school will not automatically fix everything, Dillon said. Instead, cultural shifts must happen too.

About Sarah Ross

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