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CDT explains bullying investigation at Park Forest Middle School

State College Area School District’s Park Forest Middle School.

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For the past two months, heartbreak and unanswered questions have defined the lives of many parents and students at Park Forest Middle School.

On May 12, State College Area School District Superintendent Curtis Johnson shared a heartbreaking email to district families about the death by 14-year-old Abby Smith, an eighth-grader at Park Forest.

In a follow-up communication the next day, he offered more devastating news: Abby, described by school principal Karen Wiser as a “kind, bright young woman who brightened the lives of those around her,” had died by suicide.

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As the State College community mourned and rallied around Abby’s family — hundreds of people signed up for a meal drive and donated thousands of dollars — the school community also desperately searched for answers.

As the tragedy unfolded, we now know the school district received a flood of reports of bullying at Park Forest Middle School. Meanwhile, a number of community members contacted the Center Daily Times with concerns about bullying and how it is being handled by teachers and administrators at the school.

Education reporter Keely Doll, a two-year CDT employee, immediately launched into the story. Her interviewing, reporting, writing and editing continued for six weeks. We know it won’t end soon.

Keely interviewed Abby Smith’s father, Jonathon, who is also desperate for answers as the investigation into Abby’s death continues.

Four past and present Park Forest Middle School students and their parents were also interviewed. Two of them knew Abby—and each other—and one State High student who attended Park Forest did not know Abby or the other students who had been interviewed.

A student who knew Abby was granted anonymity in the story after she shared concerns about her privacy if her name appeared. It’s rare that we allow sources to share their stories without identifying them, but in this case we felt the importance of hearing the experience outweighed our traditional method of identifying sources.

The other students and their parents agreed to be identified.

In an hour-long interview with the State College Area School District, then-Chief of Student Services Jeanne Knouse spoke about policies related to bullying, the district’s investigative process and mental health resources.

Knouse retired at the end of June. Her successor, Stephanie Beaver, was also in the interview.

Requests to interview Park Forest’s principal or guidance counselor were not granted.

In keeping with district policy, Knouse could not comment on specific situations involving students or information about other students’ disciplinary actions. The Center Daily Times has not named the students accused of bullying.

In addition to sharing their experiences at Park Forest Middle School, the students and parents interviewed for this story shared concerns about the bullying reporting process, with some, including Jon Smith, saying the policy protects those accused of bullying.

“What about the kids who get bullied?” he asked.

It’s a very important question – one that this story examines closely.

We also know that these issues may not be unique to Park Forest Middle School or the State College Area School District. We encourage others to reach out and share their experiences by emailing Keely Doll at [email protected].

Jessica McAllister is the executive editor of the Center Daily Times.

Jessica McAllister has been the executive editor of the Center Daily Times since 2019. She previously worked as a reporter at daily newspapers in New York and Colorado.

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