Waterloo mother hopes for change after suffering loss of son

Angelicia Smith, of Waterloo, tragically lost her son, Giovanni Bourne, on June 22, 2021 just weeks before his 12th birthday.

She has one message she wants parents, teachers, and other children to hear: If you see something, say something.

Smith planned to attend the Waterloo School Board meeting on July 12 where, in light of the recent events, she wanted to share her experiences.




“There were so many families who wrote to me, even prior students of Waterloo that are my age now,” Smith told Fingerlakes1.com after the school board meeting. “There was one kid in particular at the balloon ceremony who I just held, and that was when I realized, this has got to stop. This is ridiculous.”

Smith began her fight against bullying long before she lost Gio.

During the interview she referenced many things she’d attempted to address with the school before Gio’s passing.

“You think my daughter’s the only one who sat on a toilet seat during lunch?” Smith asked. “No, she’s not. There are a lot of kids who eat lunch in the bathroom. It’s awful. It’s a hit to their self esteem. I cried when my daughter told me that. We cried together. I don’t ever want my daughter to feel so alienated and that hurt. She couldn’t even go to someone’s office.”

Smith referenced her attempts at addressing the issues as early on as her daughter being in second grade.

“My daughter was on the school bus and was called the N word by another boy,” Smith said. “He told her his uncle is going to come back to this school and shoot her with his AK47.”

She explained that her daughter was too young to understand exactly what was said to her, but it scared Smith.

“She came home and asked, ‘Mom, what’s an AK47?'” Smith said. “I asked her where she heard that and she said a boy told her his uncle was going to kill her. I was so scared and I sent a long email to the principal.”

Smith went on to explain that she expressed the need to do something about the situation and how terrified she was for her daughter. She asked if the bus had video and audio and was told yes. In order for her to obtain it, she needed to ask the resource officer at the time. She was finally able to get the video and audio after going through different channels, and discovered that the boy did say those things.




“My daughters cousin saw this happening and stood up and got between the two,” Smith said. “He got in trouble with the other boy for sticking up for his cousin.”

Smith also said that during Spirit Week last year at school, they had a day called ‘Merica Day, not America Day. While the day was geared toward patriotic celebration, Smith couldn’t help but feel there was some type of connotation in the choice to use “‘Merica” instead of “America” with the current political climate. Not only that, but when her daughter asked about celebrating Black History Month, she was told that they do not celebrate holidays.

Fingerlakes1.com emailed the Waterloo School Board President, Ellen Hughes, to ask if there was a reason for the choosing of “Merica” instead of  “America” and if Black History Month was considered a holiday for Waterloo School District.

“Please understand that by law the board elects the superintendent, oversees fiscal activity and makes policy.” Hughes responded. “We do not run the day to day activities of the schools.”

Hughes stated she would be forwarding the email to Mrs. Bavis and make no further comment because it would be inappropriate.

Mrs. Bavis was reached for comment and has not responded.

A few days later, Hughes sent a follow up email.

“I did want to let you know that parents should report all incidents as they happen,” Hughes wrote. “All incidents are investigated by the school.”

Hughes suggested in response to questions about working with Ms. Smith, that she should join the Steering Committee.

“We have worked on bullying for years and will continue to do so,” she wrote.

Smith cares deeply about creating a safe environment for all children of different races, sexual orientation, and genders. Her battle against bullying is an attempt to create a fostering, safe environment for kids while they’re at school and away from their families.

After years of trying to make a change and dealing with both of her children being bullied, Smith is determined to stop another child from being bullied to the point of suicide.

When discussing the conversations between herself and the school district, she expressed frustration about wanting to work with them, and not against them.

Fingerlakes1.com inquired in an email to Hughes whether plans were being made to work with Ms. Smith, but received no comment.




“This is about facilitating some change,” she said. “That’s what it is- just doing the work. It’s the complacency from the school and the community. Even though the community has been there for me and a lot of times they want change, they don’t want to put in the work.”

“This is not easy on top of losing my son,” she said. “This is not easy to fight these people because they’re fighting me. I just want to be on their side. I want them on my side. I want to work together. I don’t want to fight, I just want to work together and they don’t want to because they don’t want to be held accountable.”

“I feel like my son is the catalyst for change,” she said.

Smith explained that she had never attended a board meeting and had signed her name on a list to be able to speak. Ellen Hughes, the president of the Board of Education, called Smith to speak.

“She completely botched my name,” Smith said. “Which I understand, my name is a little difficult. But to not make any effort to fix it? It’s not that hard, and if you’re having trouble, you know who I am. She could have just said ‘I’m sorry, I don’t know how to pronounce your name’ but she just giggled, like it was funny. I just told her out loud, ‘That’s okay’ and then she just said, ‘Oh I’m sorry.’ She didn’t even apologize that I had just lost my son.”

Smith explained that after showing up to the meeting, she learned that there was a three minute time limit for members of the community to share, so she asked for more time before she began her turn.

“I told everyone that was with me, if they did not let me have longer than three minutes then we were leaving,” she said. “I was not even going to waste my time. So when I got my turn I explained that I was Angelicia Smith, the mother of deceased Giovanni Bourne, and asked that in light of what I’d been through, if I could please have longer than three minutes.”

Smith said that after she asked, minutes went by before anyone made any kind of simple yes or no decision. She said Hughes verbalized that she wasn’t sure what to do in that situation.

Smith felt that after everything she had been through and with everyone being aware, not one person stood up for her or apologized for the loss of her son. Eventually they came to the decision to give her over the three minute time limit.

“When I started I got not even halfway through, and Miss Hughes interrupted me and said to me we weren’t going to be doing this, that I was off topic,” Smith said. “She said I was personally attacking the Superintendent. I was told I was off topic, though the topic was bullying, and I was talking about my son who was bullied, addressing the Superintendent.”

She said that after they refused to let her say what she had prepared, she graciously bowed out and that’s when things got tense.

Her daughter became emotional after dealing with the death of her little brother, and after being a student at Waterloo School District for years, was never offered an apology for what she was going through.

Smith said her daughter wrote an email to Miss Hughes after the meeting and was again responded to with short, blunt answers and still a lack of empathy for the situation:

“Thank you for your email,” Hughes response to Smith’s daughter reads. “Information about a topic is appreciated. We cannot however allow personal public attacks. Thank you for your input.”

“I am not blaming the school,” Smith said. “Please understand that. But they have to be held accountable for their negligence in this.”

Smith explained that the negligence she refers to goes further than her sons death.

“They need to be held accountable for their negligence with my daughter and her bullying,” she said. “What I said is factual- she indeed sat on a toilet seat to eat her lunch. It is a fact that they did nothing about it. It is a fact that my son was grabbed by his shirt, the throat of his shirt, and forced to apologize to a teacher.”

In a Facebook post made by Smith, she shared an email correspondence from when her daughter was 11. In the email, she expressed frustration toward the staff member she was addressing, stating that they chose to place their confusion over a situation onto her 11-year-old child by pulling her out of class.

In the email Smith goes on to explain that she had a discussion with an administrator and when the staff was confused about it, instead of contacting Smith, the person who had the conversation, they chose to ask her child, who became upset over the situation.

“I’ve been talking about this school and making a change for a long time, a very long time,” Smith said. “I’ve said to many people that I don’t know how I’m going to do it prior to my son’s passing. And here I am.”




Smith’s prepared speech for the Board of Education meeting can be read below.

“I’d like to start by saying thank you to my community for standing with me. It’s meant the world to all of us.

Safety and Wellness:

You speak of wellness and safety Mrs. Bavis, yet on numerous occasions my daughter ate lunch on a toilet. She feared for her safety. I would like to know how and why no staff knew she was on the bathroom toilet. That does not seem safe to me. Do teachers just leave kids to fend for themselves and go about their lunch plans?

At Hillside we sat with our kids and ate. We didn’t stand around swinging our keys like some security guard. A meal is a time to get to know your children on another level. Yes, they need time for themselves, but the fact is, we must be present to keep everyone safe.

A safe place to eat is not the toilet; talk about a hit to the self esteem of any child.

Walking into a cafeteria, a bunch of seniors pointing, laughing, making pig noises is not safe. Where are your staff?

We truly have become extremely complacent and that happens because the staff has no support. Maybe certain ones do, but not the ones who actually care.

Tolerance:

You speak of tolerance, have a lot to say about not tolerating racism and bullying of any kind. I would like to know if the recent graffiti on your lockers with the N word was handled? Who made the call to paint over it and how was it handled? Did the other party get in trouble? Or are we still going with you’re not able to tell us? Just another secret you all get away with.

Through my experience it gets painted over and we move on with the day. It may get written down somewhere but kids still do what they want to do.

This happened because it’s the culture of all Waterloo Schools and some staff.

I can not and don’t want to change anything about a child who unfortunately learns these behaviors at home. However, families need to know there will be consequences for this type of behavior and there are laws to support it.

Diveristy Club:

I love the idea of the diversity club as as a start. However, how can we truly be diverse when the club is comprised of only one race? Diversity will only happen when it becomes a priority to you.

You’re not trying hard enough to get everyone involved.

I applied for a job here and I’ve worked for hillside for over 10 years. I am over qualified. I didn’t even get an interview from the high school. How does that happen? I’ll tell you how that happened- you did not want me to be a part of your school because you viewed me as a noise maker.

As you say, Mrs. Bavis, I differ in opinion. I guess I didn’t realize I had to align with you for an interview. The same reason you never picked up the phone, Mrs. Bavis, to hold your staff, that you claimed to appoint to call my mother to come and speak, accountable for not calling. They didn’t call because of their own bias. They didn’t want any awareness to be brought to light or maybe it was you, Mrs. Bavis, who never truly appointed anyone.

To be honest you’re the last one on my list as a good quality fair job as a woman of color. I wanted to be with my son. My son didn’t have a voice yet. I was working hard just as I did with my daughter for years on her voice. That is exactly what I said to Mr. Vitali. I didn’t get the opportunity to say that to Mrs. Madonna because she never called me for an interview and from what I understand that’s standard procedure.

Well I guess it’s too late because my son is dead. So I won’t have an opportunity to influence him or his peers in the school. I am not in the least bit surprised that happened because it is normal behavior for Waterloo School District. Just pretend it didn’t happen or just become complacent.

NEW POSITIONS

It seems everyone is scrambling to cover up their tracks, fill spots, and run around claiming that Waterloo has always been involved and the policies being addressed today have always been in place. I’m very certain it’s been on paper. Well, words don’t jump off of paper and have results. These 56 positions, who qualifies for these positions? Only bachelor degree holders, masters degree holders.

Do you know how many parents you have right here in this community who have the ability to bring value to these schools, who don’t have a degree? And being educated is wonderful and I push for my kids to be, however, you have a lot of highly educated individuals here and really nothing is getting done. Nothing changes.

YOUR STAFF.

You have a staff member who believes putting kids in a room and letting them battle it out is appropriate. This same person, when my son was alive, asked him and other students how many women they think he slept with.

I wonder, did Mr. Vitalie address this with you Mrs. Bavis? If so why did he come to represent you and your staff as you say at my sons calling hours? This is who you chose in your words to represent you Mrs. Bavis. Mr. Vitalie and Mrs. Madonna. This goes right back to safe behaviors.

I made a call and supposedly it was dealt with. I felt horrible for the female teacher in the room who made it very clear to me she did not condone this behavior. You might ask why I chose not to speak with Mr. Vitalie myself, why would I? Again, my experience is simply complacency.

After my son passed I came to realize how tortured he was at times here.

A PE teacher grabbing him by the throat of his shirt demanding he say thank you to him after my son asked for help tying his shoe.

Admittedly, he should have been able to do it himself but my boy was just trying to get back to the game.

Is this safe behavior? Why would any child want to tell on any teacher after experiences like that? That includes the children who watched it.

My daughter was asked to walk on a male teachers back. I emailed that teacher and saved his job by not saying a word but he knows Who he is. Ask your children, he may have done it to others.

That’s on me for feeling like I just knew nothing would happen.

He showed up to the calling hours. So should you seeing as I emailed it to his school email.

A lunch lady once told my son if you can’t eat with that fork I will take it and you will eat with your fingers. Is that safe behavior? No, it’s bullying through food which I purchased because my kids don’t eat school lunch.

A teacher once took her pencil and bounced her eraser off of my sons head. Over and over. Is this safe behavior? No, it’s called intimidation by physical abuse. And she came to the calling hours.

I have situation after situation like this and worse that I could share. My point is, not one thing was done, nothing.

Nothing, email after email after email. And I, his mother, just have to smile and be understanding. I’m not smiling and I’m not understanding anymore.

Diversity is the range of human differences, including but not limited to race, ethnicity, gender, gender identity, sexual orientation, age, social class, physical ability or attributes, religious or ethical values system, national origin, and political beliefs.

I keep hearing this saying, “the black card” “here she goes using her black card.”

Ask yourself what have I really gained with my black card but a dead son and speaking to all of you about my story? The language and the culture needs to change.

We really all can coexist we can be different look different and believe in different things.

I know it’s hard to admit many faults here and to take blame or responsibility for our actions at times, but we teach our children they must be responsible, that they must have accountability for their actions, because it’s the only way we can see changes and not repeat mistakes. It no longer becomes a mistake after learning from it. It becomes a culture we allow to fester.

The diversity club is run by one of the most wonderful women I know. Kind, full-hearted, understanding and the best ally.

She can not do it alone. It’s absolutely irresponsible of school administrators to throw her in there without you being involved. Buying books, Mrs. Madonna, with no explanation solves absolutely nothing.

If you do something to just have the documentation then don’t bother.

She also needs to have students of color and STAFF of color as well to be a part of this club. We are a growing population in this community as well as the gay, lesbian, trans and LGBTQ.

We live in what I consider an old school town and in many ways I love this, but in many ways we allow our ignorance to show.

I’m telling you right now we will see this more and more and younger and younger. We will bury child after child before we wake up.

If we want our children to not bully, to be inclusive, and to take accountability, then we need to model that. That means leaving your BIAS AT THE DOOR.

It’s time for you, Mrs. Bavis, to take accountability. It is you that your staff looks up to. It is you that runs the schools. It is you who has to model the behavior you expect your staff to model. They too need to held accountable for poor behavior.

If they can not take the oath then they need to get out and allow for teachers who actually care to work alongside you and treat all children with DIGNITY.

It starts at the top, you know that, and so does everyone else. We all deserve basic human kindness. My son will never come back to me, he will never be able to graduate.

My goal is to help but I will not tolerate what’s been going on. Things need to change. We have a lot of work to do and I know it’s going to be hard, but let’s get to work, let’s build our kids up so there ready for this world.

And please if you see something say something.