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Greendale High bomb threat prompts discussion of bullying

Oct. 2, 2012

Greendale - The bomb threat on the wall of the boys' bathroom appeared before homecoming at Greendale High School last month: 3 DAYS TILL BOOM JK OR AM I?

Five days later, news of the arrest of Greendale senior Nicholas Olson, 17, spread quickly. But a twist in the case became the real talker: Instead of being charged with a felony for the alleged crime, prosecutors recommended a misdemeanor for Olson because of reports of prolonged teasing at the hands of his peers, including being voted onto the homecoming court as a joke this fall.

The incident now raises fresh questions about the extent and impact of peer bullying in area schools. Several Greendale parents say Olson's experience has exposed an undercurrent present in the district for years in this Milwaukee County suburb often applauded for its great schools and small-town feel.

Others say it's an opportunity to discuss more openly issues of school culture, respect and peer-to-peer behavior, a difficult area for many adults to police when students have multiple avenues to mistreat peers that go beyond outright verbal or physical abuse.

Olson is to make his first court appearance Wednesday. His misdemeanor charge carries a maximum penalty of a $1,000 fine and 90 days in prison. As for Greendale, bomb threats are offenses that warrant discipline up to and including expulsion in schools.

Steve Lodes, principal of Greendale High School, said the incident involving Olson has prompted discussions about what can be learned from the situation.

"Our challenge is: What should we be looking for?" he said in an interview Tuesday.

It can be hard for administrators to thwart some instances of bullying, for example, if the student being mistreated doesn't speak up.

"At the high school, we try to focus on students embracing the lifelong skill of being a self-advocate," Lodes said. "We want them to speak up to a trusted adult when something is going wrong or something 'doesn't feel right.' "

Olson's family declined to be interviewed, but others describe the boy as a student who operated outside of popular circles. Shy, he engaged with peers online more than in person.

His biggest defender has been his cousin, Jesse Johnston, who plays on Greendale's football team.

On Sept. 25, the day that Olson was arrested, Johnston posted to his Twitter stream that "bullying can lead to serious problems." He called out others peers for mistreating Olson, adding: "Nick Olson is not like this. He is a great guy. Honestly he's my cousin, he just got involved with the wrong crowd growing up."

In a conversation over Twitter this week, Johnston told a Journal Sentinel reporter he thought people "finally saw what happened" after someone got bullied for four years straight.

"A threat happened," he said.

According to a criminal complaint, Olson reported that he had been teased all his life, and that he was upset and angry when he wrote the threat on the bathroom wall. He stated he did not have a plan to use an explosive device and hurt anyone.

The specifics of long-term bullying that Olson experienced are not clear. One classmate offered that students had some nicknames for him, but that Olson was generally regarded as a quiet outsider.

Then last year, a staff person tallying student votes for prom court noticed an unusual number of votes for Olson.

Lodes was notified.

Voting an unlikely candidate to a dance court is not unprecedented at Greendale High School. Ballot sheets include all students in the class or classes eligible for voting, and students select more than a dozen.

A previous court vote had brought on a different boy who was not the stereotypical star athlete or front-runner in the popular crowd. But according to students and staff, the young man was all right with the appointment, and even a little proud.

The latest dance court vote, for homecoming this fall, brought in more nominations for Olson.

It was enough to get him on court.

When staff approached him about it, Olson made it clear he had no intention of going. He declined the nomination.

Then at some point on the Thursday before the dance, according to the complaint, Olson headed for the bathroom with a blue pen.

Lodes said Tuesday the school will work with students to overhaul the court-selection process.

On paper and in practice, Greendale's school system seems to have everything in place for positive school culture.

A modest district enrollment of about 2,600 students - with around 950 at the high school - allows personal relationships to flourish between staff and students. The district has preserved many in-school and after-school clubs and activities that have fallen prey to budget cuts elsewhere.

Two years ago Greendale began a districtwide emphasis - which continues today, according to administrators - on bullying awareness. Character development programs are in place. The school reaches out to parents with new programs.

A new student-family assistance program offers free therapy and counseling sessions with medical professionals from Aurora Health Care. Issues addressed in visits last year ranged from drug abuse and marital issues to concerns with school staff, according to district records.

But some parents say more could be done.

Cherie Swiercz, a mother of a student at Greendale Middle School, said teachers and principals need to make sure they're not making light of situations that may seem minor to them, but more significant to a student or parent.

"I think that parents and faculty need to listen to students a little more," she said.

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