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Elementary student leaves Phoenix school over alleged bullying incidents

LISTEN: Bullied 10-year-old student

PHOENIX — How people define bullying at a Phoenix school has a Valley mom engaged in a legal battle with priests and administrators at St. Agnes Catholic Elementary School.

“I just want to know, where is their compassion, their empathy?” asked parent Dominique Rivas. “I expect so much more from a faith-based school.”

The incidents started last year when Dominique’s daughter, Julia, 10, was forced to take medication that made her gain a few pounds. The bullying began, according to Dominique, when’s Julia’s body started to change.

“It started with chalk drawings outside the classroom of how fat she is compared to them, and they’d laugh at her,” said Rivas. “She needed glasses and the kids made fun of her. By the end of the day, a child took her glasses and broke them in half.”

Julia’s parents have tried to be loving and supportive, but they said they find themselves frustrated and angry being in a losing battle with administrators — who, according to the Rivas family, aren’t doing enough to address students’ relentless bullying of their daughter. School officials vehemently deny her claim.

The young girl — described by administrators as a smart, pleasant child — relayed a few instances where she was too scared to say or do anything to the perpetrators.

According to the girl, for three months, boys would prevent the her from eating.

“People stole my lunch and told me I was too fat to eat.”

School administrators said they investigated every incident reported by Julia’s mother and took action when appropriate. Dominique has documentation of nearly a dozen incidents where children’s behavior could be classified as bullying, but often the term is up for interpretation.

“We didn’t think it rose to the level of bullying,” said Fr. Bradley Peterson, who oversees the school and church.

The principal Denise Campbell said she believes Julia might be overly sensitive, as many fourth grade girls often are.

“We have to take time to talk through the problems,” said Campbell. “We have a counselor that goes into the classrooms and helps the girls deal with those problems.”

The situation finally came to a head when the mother confronted a teacher on campus and asked the woman if it would take a suicide for the school to put an end to the bullying. Dominique’s actions were deemed disruptive and bordered on harassment. Soon after the incident at the school, Julia’s parents received an invitation to meet with Peterson.

In a taped recording of that meeting, Peterson asked the family to sign an agreement banning the frustrated mother from the campus along with the stipulation that Julia was not to be enrolled there the following school year.

When the couple refused to sign the agreement, the soft-spoken priest can be heard saying, “So you’re refusing to sign it, then you’ll have to take Julia home.”

The 10 year old has not been back to school since classes were let out for Spring Break — a decision Peterson made for Julia during a tense meeting between the girl’s parents and the priest.

“I just want to know what I did wrong,” said Julia, whose parents have been trying to shield her from the situation.

The child currently is not attending any school. Her mother claims other Catholic schools have heard about the situation and aren’t interested in allowing the child to be enrolled. Public schools aren’t an option for the rest of this school year because of AIMS requirements, Rivas claims.

The family has created a Facebook page looking for public support for Julia’s case.

Whether the child was invited to finish out the remainder of the school year has been debated by both parties. Julia’s future at St. Agnes lies in the hands of attorneys who are trying to find a solution that puts her best interests first.