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Student who once loved school has lost hope in Denton ISD after years of bullying

Nicole and Sam Cano, who live in the Lantana area, said their son endured three years of bullying at Harpool Middle School.

Lucinda Breeding-Gonzales
Nicole and Sam Cano, who live in the Lantana area, said their son endured three years of bullying at Harpool Middle School.

Editor's Note

This story is the first in a series about school bullying, how it affects students, families and campuses, as well as the challenges public schools face now that bullying can and does happen online and through electronic devices. In this story, a family recalls how bullying has caused them to withdraw their student from Denton ISD and enroll him in a neighboring district.
Nicole and Sam Cano are proud of their teenage son Kingston.

He might be a little small for his age, but he’s a curious student and an avid athlete who has found both satisfaction and success as a baseball player and on the football field.

But when he walks the stage with the Class of ’28, he won’t do it as a Guyer High School Wildcat. He’ll graduate from a neighboring district.

The Canos, who have four young children, said years of bullying at Harpool Middle School spurred their decision to remove Kingston from Denton ISD. Taunts and aggression went beyond the middle school hallways, pinging the family’s cellphones. A group of Kingston’s bullies eventually showed up at the family’s home on Halloween night, wearing masks. Then, Nicole Cano said, one of the parents of a student they had reported taunted her at the community pool, resulting in a call to the police.

The confrontation is what spurred the Canos to withdraw their son from school. They have also begun homeschooling their daughter, leaving their two other children in public school.

“We’re just at a point where we’ve done everything we can think of to do about this,” Nicole Cano said. “This has been just a nightmare.”

A flashpoint of frustration

In May, over a dozen people attended a Denton ISD school board meeting to speak publicly about their concerns with bullying. Some were students, while others were leaders of Denton County Citizens Defending Freedom, a conservative, faith-based political group, and a few former school board candidates. The board meeting attracted Dallas-Fort Worth television stations, and one middle school student spoke about her injuries and trauma after an assault on a district school bus in April. That assault resulted in an arrest in May, and Denton ISD banned several people from school property.

The Canos were among the speakers. Kingston addressed the school board at the meeting that night, telling them that his hopes for good middle school memories had been replaced by fear and antagonism.

District officials aren’t permitted to comment on student disciplinary records, which are protected under the federal Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act. After the May board meeting adjourned, district leaders said some speakers made statements pertaining to reports that had been investigated.

“Denton ISD takes every allegation of bullying seriously,” Julie Zwahr, Denton ISD’s chief communications officer, said Wednesday in a statement. “The safety and wellbeing of our students, both physically and mentally, is always our top priority. Each day, our teachers and staff work diligently to provide a safe environment for our students to learn.”

Students now have different ways to report bullying, whether they are being bullied themselves or if they have seen students bullying others. Students can report incidents directly to teachers, staff members and administrators.

“Denton ISD also has resources and systems in place to stop and prevent bullying, including utilizing the STOPit app, which allows anyone to report safely and anonymously anything of concern to school officials,” Zwahr said. “The STOPit app is also accessible by members of local law enforcement and Denton ISD’s Safety and Security team, which include Student Resource Officers and School Safety Officers, who are notified of reports. Our process ensures a system of checks and balances where multiple levels of administrators are notified.”

The app can also be used to report other safety and security risks.

‘Things got rowdier’

The Canos said they think the atmosphere at Harpool Middle School could have shifted when a long-serving principal retired and a new administrative team came to campus.

“The way kids talked about it was that things got rowdier when the old principal left,” Kingston Cano said.

Kingston’s sixth grade year soured when he missed school for a field trip and someone started a rumor that he’d been sent to in-school suspension, a consequence given when a student engages in what the Student Code of Conduct defines as prohibited conduct, which can range from having illegal substances to mistreating others and misusing technology.

From there, the Canos said, the rumors escalated to taunts that a male classmate wanted Kingston to fight him. When Kingston started playing football, and playing well, his parents said, the same group of boys seemed to lock on to their son. When someone made an anonymous report about Kingston getting bullied, he was asked to make a formal report. The report, Sam Cano said, made everything worse.

“Once, I think, the kids realized you’d gone to the administration to ‘tattle,’ that’s when the target starts. And then that’s when the constant harassing in the hallways and classes starts,” Sam Cano said.

They had meetings with administration and exchanged pages of email. Nicole Cano said her documentation for the district reached almost 100 pages. The administration said they would “put more eyes on” their son, but it didn’t take long for students to test that. Sam Cano said he eventually asked his son to meet him after school at the front entrance in the pickup line because Kingston was getting threatened if he lingered near the practice field.

The Canos said some of the students they’ve reported are children of administrators, and they’ve wondered if that shielded the alleged bullies from consequences.

And as the district investigated and brought consequences, a whack-a-mole game of intimidation spread through the friend group of their son’s antagonists.

“They’d pull one kid in to talk, and then one of their friends would say something to him. It was never-ending. They just wouldn’t leave him alone,” Nicole Cano said. “I kept asking, ‘Can’t they just leave him alone?’”

The students started approaching Kingston in the school bathroom and the weight room, where there aren’t surveillance cameras.

“It’s because of what we’ve been through that we can go and say, ‘OK, well, this happened in the hallway, we want to see video of that,’ but it took three days to get back to us, but they wouldn’t give that [video footage] to us,” Nicole Cano said. “It’s just unnerving for us, because with the way that we can’t trust that the school will handle it or not, will it change their point of view — or their side of things?”

On Halloween, Kingston got a threat that a student was going to come to the family’s home in the Lantana area, ring the bell and “punch Kingston in the face” if he answered the door. Then when students rang their doorbell a second time, Sam Cano followed them.

He caught up to them with their masks and helmets off. “They just stopped,” he said. “They were actually whipping that golf cart back down to come back down here.”

“They were on their way back to do it a third time,” Nicole Cano said.

The couple called the police, who told them that because the group was on the sidewalk, they weren’t trespassing.

The Canos said they talked with school resource officers, but felt they put the onus back on them to find a resolution. Even when football teammates were reportedly benched during a game for alleged bullying, the students were allowed to attend the game and, Nicole Cano said, didn’t spend the game with their parents as instructed.

Instead, they said, their son missed athletic practices while school officials looked into reported bullying and harassment. Kingston’s grades suffered, but he managed to pass so that he could still play football.

The Canos said they’re proud their son kept his chin up, in spite of dreading school.

Things came to a head in the lunchroom one day. Kingston had been sitting near the surveillance camera, at his parents’ suggestion. One day, a boy the family said had been harassing Kingston approached him. Kingston said he remembers telling the boy to leave him alone “or something bad was going to happen,” and then turned away.

The boy made a remark, and Kingston said he grabbed him by the shirt and threw him to the ground. Afterward, he said, the boy claimed Kingston had grabbed his genitals.

The surveillance video vindicated Kingston in his parents’ eyes.

“I watch him turn completely around and the kid gets in his ear,” Sam Cano said. “And so, that’s when he turns around, picks him up and throws him down, and they pause and say for that split second, the parents perceived he could have touched him.”

Nicole Cano said she couldn’t see any intentional touch in the video.

“His hands could have accidentally grazed his privates,” she said.

Ultimately, they said, the school didn’t punish Kingston for sexual assault. But students did use anti-gay slurs and accusations of assault against him, she said. Kingston isn’t gay, but homophobic slurs are a common weapon among adolescent boys.

Sam Cano said he pressed the administration for documentation that there wasn’t an assault but was told the investigation was dropped.

Kingston ended the school year eating lunch in the choir room.

Is bullying on the rise?

In January, the National Center for Education Statistics released its report on violent incidents, bullying and drug possession in American schools, based on a survey of 4,800 public elementary and secondary schools. The government agency also looked at “restorative practices” that some school districts use to resolve conflict. The report didn’t offer a clear view of violence and bullying trends but reported that in the latest year the agency tracked — 2021-22 — more than half of U.S. public schools reported one violent incident. The report doesn’t specify if the violence was related to bullying.

NCES Commissioner Peggy G. Carr said 90% of schools have increased social and emotional support for students since the COVID-19 pandemic.

In its key findings, the report said school officials found that “a higher percentage of middle schools reported bullying on campus at least once per week in 2021-22, with 28 percent saying it took place at least once a week, compared with 15 percent for high/secondary schools and 10 percent for elementary schools.” The report looks at data from the 2017-18 school year to the 2021-22 school year.

“Similarly, cyberbullying at school or away from school at least once a week was reported by 37 percent of middle schools and 25 percent of high/secondary schools, compared to 6 percent of elementary schools,” the report said.

At Denton ISD, officials said reports of bullying have increased, but the reasons are varied.

“Since 2015, Denton ISD’s enrollment has grown by nearly 6,000 students, and the increase in alleged bullying reports has a linear correlation with that growth,” Zwahr said. “While the number of STOPit reports is higher than in years past, the increase is attributed to a number of factors, including: the aforementioned increase in student population, students mimicking behavior they have seen outside of school, the increased efficiency of reporting and incidents that occurred off school property.”

In search of resolution

The Canos said the procedures taken by school leaders feel insufficient. They said the behaviors their son reported are severe enough for offending students to be placed in in-school suspension or even sent to the district’s alternative education program campus, where students continue coursework after repeated behavioral disruptions.

“I wanted something instead of just this slap on the wrist,” Nicole Cano said.

“Yeah, and like, what does ‘handle’ mean or ‘talking to,’ right?” Sam Cano said. “Every time we had a conversation, it was, ‘It’s being handled’ or ‘We’re talking to them.’ We were told, ‘They won’t do it again,’ but it didn’t stop.”

As for children of teachers or administrators bullying classmates, the district has a policy for that.

“All alleged bullying incidents are investigated, and administrators who may have a personal interest in an incident recuse themselves from the situation entirely,” Zwahr said. “Due to privacy laws, matters involving student discipline, including individual grievances, cannot be discussed publicly. The results of an investigation could determine an incident to be bullying, misconduct, or a non-event. In any case, if behavior is found to be in violation of the Student Code of Conduct, consequences are assigned.”

The Canos said they are still pursuing a resolution for their son, even though he won’t attend a district school.

“This has been the most lonely battle of our lives so far,” Nicole Cano said. “No one should have to ever endure this.”