State of Utah sought confirmation of extremely low amount of bullying at local charter school

The outside view of St. George Academy, a charter high school for students in grades 8-12, Washington City, Utah, date not specified | Photo by Darren Edwards, St. George News

ST. GEORGE — A Washington County school was flagged by the state of Utah for seemingly incorrect reporting on incidents of bullying behavior after the reports showed abnormally low rates of bullying, but the school says the numbers are accurate. 

Bullying in the state of Utah is at a 22% prevalence, which is 6% less than the national average. The St. George Academy had an overall prevalence of 1.7%. Utah defines bullying by Local Education Agency standards and outlines bullying behavior in a code that went into effect on May 14.

Jodi Jensen, the St. George Academy director of student services, said she received an email from the state asking her to look over the data she submitted for potential discrepancies. Darren Edwards, a St. George Academy teacher, said that despite the state’s concerns, the data Jensen presented was correct because of the atmosphere the school has cultivated.

“It’s kind of a weirdly magical place where we’ve created a culture that doesn’t allow bullying, it just doesn’t happen,” Edwards said.

He said the students self-regulate themselves, and they are the first to step in and stand up for students who are the target of bullying behavior. It starts with respect, Edwards said, and it begins at the top with how faculty treat the students.

Teachers and administrators at the St. George Academy offer their students a safe space where they can make mistakes, Jensen said. Students and faculty see the school as a family.

“I’ve had some students tell me, ‘I feel human; I feel heard,’” Jensen said.

Director David Jones lectures in the biology lab at St. George Academy, Washington City, Utah, date not specified | Photo by Jim Speth Photography courtesy of St. George Academy, St. George News

When the school was applying for accreditation, students were asked if they had at least one caring adult on campus they felt they could turn to or had a connection with, and Jensen said each student that was asked said yes.

Edwards said the two biggest things he hears from students is that they feel safe and cared for. When children and young adults feel cared about it “frees them up to care for others,” he said.

Edwards also said St. George Academy has “a lot less rules than the typical school does” and he has never heard any member of the faculty ask something of a student without offering a reason.

“We trust our kids,” he said. “It’s this idea of respecting them enough to treat them like people and not like a prison population.

Edwards said he recalls a time when a student participated in an act of vandalism by writing a “crude word” on a wall. Instead of coming down hard on the student, he said, the faculty explained why the act was inappropriate. The faculty covered the vandalism with a sign that reads “vulgarity is no substitute for wit,” he said.

Jensen said often times schools look at students from one angle and forget that they have lives outside of the classroom that could impact their academic performance and behavior.

Students participate in a learning experience at St. George Academy, Washington City, Utah, date not specified | Photo courtesy by Darren Edwards, St. George News

She said the difference between St. George Academy and other schools in the area comes down to a student’s sense of belonging. Students spend their lunches in their administrators’ offices talking or playing chess in the principal’s office, Jensen said.

Jensen admitted creating these close relationships has been easier as her school has a smaller student population. Because of the school’s small size, she said, faculty are able to have more one-on-one time.

However, it’s not impossible to build close relationships in a larger school, she said, and it starts with understanding that the student is more than a student.

“We look at our students as a whole person. The way that we treat our students is by looking at them as humans first.”

Jensen said throughout the entire year, she has not had a single physical altercation, and although she sees groups of students who are together, she does not see cliques.

This is the St. George Academy’s second year in operation, but Edwards said the process of cultivating a culture of caring and kindness began on the first day. He said the faculty have worked from the beginning to solve small issues that could lead to big problems.

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