THOMPSON FALLS — An alleged history of bullying, sexual harassment and disrespect for girls at Thompson Falls High School came to a head Tuesday when two students led a walkout during sixth period.
It was nonviolent and respectful, just as senior Trinity Godfrey and junior Brooke Bowlin insisted it be on flyers and Facebook.
Some 40 students and a smattering of teachers and parents marched once around the school parking lot, some carrying signs.
“We demand to be taken serious,” one placard said. “Would you talk to your mother like that?” read another. Bowlin’s pledged, “We will not be silenced.”
Godfrey’s read simply “FAT,” a reference to one of a dozen derogatory labels and comments heard in the halls and on school grounds that Godfrey and Bowlin ticked off, at Superintendent Bill Cain’s urging, in the school library after the march.
A couple of others: Women are pigs. Women are only good for cooking, cleaning and making babies.
By then more than 50 teens and parents had gathered, at Cain’s invitation, to talk out the issue and come up with resolutions.
The students who took part, including the two instigators, received excused absences and faced no disciplinary repercussions, Cain promised.
“I see this process as an absolute perfect example of expressing your right to free speech,” he said before the walkout. “I’m proud of the kids for it, and what a great opportunity to learn that we can address some grievances and get some things resolved.”
Godfrey was homecoming queen this fall and plays basketball for the Lady Bluehawks. She started the season last year after her family moved from Cheney, Washington, to the hometown of her mother, Jessica Ellison, but felt forced to quit the team in midseason.
“We had an issue last year with a group of boys called the Wolf Pack making sexist derogatory remarks to and about females openly,” Ellison said. “Trinity complained to the teacher and I spoke to the principal on a regular basis but nothing happened last year.”
Principal Rich Ferris, who’s in his second year at the school, made a resolution that there would be a focus this year at the school on respect. Two weeks ago, Ferris sent out a letter to the students that urged students subjected to bullying to report it, and provided an avenue to do it anonymously.
That was followed up with what Cain called advisory meetings, students meeting with advisors individually to begin “to talk about some of these things,” the superintendent said. “As you can imagine there were things to address.”
“It’s really horrible some of the things those boys would say about you, to your face. Very vulgar things,” Bowlin said. “They would talk about you as if you were not even there, and you’re sitting right there.”
In early November, such comments got Godfrey in hot water. She was at lunch in the cafeteria with Bowlin, her freshman brother Nolan and another freshman boy.
The boy “started making super-derogatory remarks, making terrible remarks about women in general,” Ellison said.
Her daughter exchanged remarks with the boy, and asked him to leave the table. As Ellison described it, the boy refused. When Godfrey got up to leave herself, he made another remark. Godfrey said she grabbed him by the shoulders and pushed him down.
She didn’t argue with the in-school suspension she received.
“I lost my temper and it was not OK on my part,” she said. “But I did in-school suspension for it. I want to see something done for his verbal assault.”
Instead, she said, she was called into the student resource officer’s office last Friday and handed a ticket. She was being charged by the boy with assault and was told youth court would be in contact.
“That was like the last straw,” said Bowlin, whose family moved to Thompson Falls before her eighth-grade year. “All of of this has been building up since I’ve been here. We have all seen it, but I felt like that was the last thing to make us go, this is really not OK. Something needs to be done.”
Their idea for a walkout sprung up that day. On Monday night, Godfrey and Bowlin discussed their plan and aired their grievances during the school board’s public comment period.
At Tuesday’s crowded library meeting after the walkout, the girls shared their comments with everyone. Their goal: “We want/need to change the culture of school so everyone can feel safe and respected,” they said in a prepared script.
Cain asked that remarks be limited to only himself, Godfrey and Bowlin. The girls proposed a series of resolutions, including enforcing “swift concise action” within a two-week period; mandatory anti-bullying and sexism/ harassment awareness classes; staff training on “how to de-escalate and discuss uncomfortable issues; punishment for staff members who look the other way and empowering students “so they know their voices matter and will be heard and taken seriously.”
Cain said the school is already working on getting Empower Montana to come in and work with the student body in January. The nonprofit provides training to thousands of students and teachers across Montana each year, instilling skills to create safer, more inclusive school communities.
“But that’s not the magic bullet,” Cain told the students. “That’ll help us to learn more. The magic piece is taking stock of yourself: What do I do? If I’m not bullying somebody, or I’m not being disrespectful or making fun of others, then I’ve taken care of my piece. If everybody does that things are a whole lot easier, and everybody gets along a whole lot better.”
Cain is a veteran school administrator but in his first year at Thompson Falls. He said as superintendent of the district he took an unusual step to intercede in the high school turmoil.
“I want to be clear that the culture of a school building is the most important thing to running a successful school,” he said.
Cain closed his comments with a promise that the school will be responsive to reports of abuse and take proactive steps to stop them. But the students share the burden.
“We’ll take responsibility for what our staff needs to do,” he said. “I’ll take responsibility for our administrative pieces of this. Our school board will be well aware of the steps we’re taking to address this issue. We’ll give you information, and give you education.
“Now, will you all use that to help create an environment to make sure people don’t feel this way any more?”
Godfrey and Bowlin said they were satisfied that Tuesday’s walkout and meeting “shined a light” on what they say has been going on.
“I’m looking forward to the action that’s supposed to be taking place,” Bowlin said.
“Supposed to be,” Godfrey echoed.
“We’ve heard this a zillion times,” she said. “We’re just hoping the superintendent makes good on his word and actually does something about it.”