The bullying incident now riveting Liberty Middle School started with the alleged harassment of Preston Kitchen, a tall, thin, 14-year-old eighth-grader who plays both violin and football.
The alleged bully, a much larger eighth-grader, had since the beginning of the year smashed Preston’s cellphone and called him a “fag,” according to Preston’s mother, Destiny Kitchen, 36. She said the larger boy threatened her son in the hallways, tripped him in gym class, dumped food on him in the cafeteria and so terrorized him that Preston no longer would retrieve his violin from his locker.
“This child is threatening my son,” Kitchen said she complained to the school. Both boys got a talking-to, she said, but the harassment continued.
Preston’s grandfather last month sent a certified letter to Principal Dan Weakley, imploring school authorities to step in with “discretion” for fear of revenge.
“I am certain that you are concerned for the safety of all students…” said the letter, dated Jan. 26. “I also believe that Preston is afraid that if this particular young man is punished, Preston will be in greater danger.”
But it wasn’t Preston who was beaten badly enough to send him to Children’s Mercy Hospital for a five-day stay. It was his younger brother, Blake.
The 12-year-old, a sixth-grader at Liberty Middle, was released from the hospital Monday. Kitchen said the attack about 7:20 a.m. last Thursday left Blake unconscious and bleeding on the floor of the school lunchroom.
His jaw was broken. His skull was fractured. Cerebrospinal fluid leaked from his right ear, which doctors are still examining for possible loss of hearing.
Blake, who his mother said previously has been diagnosed with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, anxiety and symptoms of Asperger syndrome, is 4 feet 6 inches tall and weighs 74 pounds. Kitchen said his alleged attacker is a foot taller and weighs more than 200 pounds.
The result, she said from her home Tuesday, has been an outpouring of support from other area parents as well as outrage that such an event can occur inside a school where signs in the halls declare the school to be a “bully free zone.”
A request Tuesday for comments from Weakley was referred to the Liberty Public Schools. Dallas Ackerman, the district’s director of communications, said he could not discuss the incident other than to release a statement.
“The safety of our students while at school is our top priority in Liberty Public Schools,” it said. “The incident that occurred between two students on Thursday, February 19, is currently being reviewed. The incident has been turned over to local authorities and the LPS will cooperate fully to assist in this process.”
Liberty police confirmed that they responded to an assault call at the school and arrested a boy who was taken to Clay County Juvenile Court.
Ackerman said he could not discuss whether the alleged bully was still attending school. Kitchen, however, said that she understands he is being held out of school for at least three weeks, pending an appearance in court and possible detention.
“I can’t confirm or deny that he is in custody,” said Janet Rogers, interim juvenile officer for Clay County. “I can tell you that this is very serious. This is a very serious offense, and we are taking it seriously.”
Tuesday afternoon, the Liberty district sent a letter to parents.
“All of us in the Liberty Public Schools take the safety and security of our students very seriously,” it said. “In LPS, students are provided both education and resources that help them understand the signs of bullying and how to report instances aimed at either themselves or others.”
The letter reminded parents about the resources the district uses to combat bullying, including counseling instruction, citizenship instruction and a reporting system.
“We want our students to understand the importance of reporting their concerns, as well as the seriousness of remaining silent,” the letter said.
More than anything, Kitchen said, she and her family have been left asking why the school didn’t do more to keep students safe.
She conceded that the principal did take some actions, including twice talking to the alleged attacker and Preston as the incidents unfolded. Preston said he left those meetings feeling that little was going to be done to stop his being harassed.
One friend of the attacker, Preston said, also was removed from his gym class, although his tormentor was not.
Kitchen said she moved to Liberty four years ago from Parkville. She works the night shift as a blackjack dealer at a casino. She has three boys, including one son in high school, and a 6-year-old daughter.
On Thursday morning, Kitchen said, she had just gotten home from her shift and was asleep when the school called with the news that her son had been in an altercation. Her fiance, Cole Burns, took off to the middle school.
Kitchen gave this account:
Blake was in the school’s lunchroom and had just returned to his seat with a breakfast pizza. Blake, she said, typically sits in the same spot and had placed his books on a chair there. The habit, she said, is a symptom of his Asperger syndrome.
When he returned with his food, his books had been moved and another student was sitting in the chair. She said Blake asked the other student to get up. The student refused. Blake asked again.
That’s when the alleged bully stepped in, she said. Blake turned to the boy.
“It’s none of your business,” Blake said.
The boy responded, “Say that to my face.”
Blake did. “It’s none of your business.”
At that point, Kitchen said, the larger boy smashed her son’s head into the lunchroom table, punched him in the face and body-slammed him to the floor.
Kitchen said she was told that women who work in the lunchroom ran to get a security guard. Students ran to older brother Preston, telling him that Blake had been pummeled. After the school’s initial call to Kitchen, she texted Preston, who texted back that the boy who had been bothering him had just beaten up Blake.
Kitchen said she was not immediately aware of the extent of the injuries until it became clear that an ambulance was arriving to take her son to Children’s Mercy.
Kitchen and Burns are seeking legal counsel to assess what, if any, case they may have against the school district.
At this point, she said, she has a singular thought: “As far as I’m concerned,” she said of her son’s attacker, “he should not be allowed back in the Liberty school district.”
On Tuesday, Blake, who will not return to school for at least two weeks, was playing with Legos on the family room floor of the home, a bandage covering his right ear. Preston, who plans to return to school Wednesday, sat on the couch behind him.
“These two will have to live in fear,” Kitchen said. Again, she referred to their attacker. “I shouldn’t have to change my life for them to stay home because they’re not safe at school. The parents of the bully should have to change their lives.”
She suggested that her son’s tormentor receive counseling “to see where all this anger comes from.” But she doesn’t want to hear that he is allowed back.
“If he is allowed back in school,” Kitchen said, “I’m keeping my kids out.”