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I-Team: Bullying incidents in schools going unreported

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WEST SPRINGFIELD, Mass. (WWLP) – Countless students are being bullied in schools every year.

Maria Fardonk’s daughter was just 10-years old when bullying in her Springfield elementary school got so bad, she became suicidal.

“We found out because one day, her dad went to the school and the teacher gave dad the note,” explained Fardonk. “The note said that she wanted to die and the world would be better without her.”

Maria Fardonk’s daughter wrote this last year when she was in fourth grade.

Fardonk met with school administrators, and she said her daughter was referred to a school counselor. But ultimately, she said her daughter needed more, and they moved to another city to get away from the bullies.

“I was devastated,” Fardonk said. “And I still cannot believe that my daughter was going through this. It affected the whole family. We’re still trying to deal with it. We are still trying to make her feel better, make her self-esteem better because she doesn’t feel good about herself.”

The 22News I-Team contacted Springfield Public Schools. Spokeswoman Azell Cavaan said that while she cannot talk about individual incidents involving students, there are policies in place to protect students.

“The district has a number of policies, protocols and best practices in place to address any and all allegations of bullying,” said Cavaan. “We also have curriculum, programs, and training in place that comprehensively address bullying prevention and intervention.”

Documents from the Massachusetts Department of Elementary and Secondary Education (DESE) show that reports of bullying have gone down over the past four school years – in Springfield and state-wide. Scroll down for a complete list of bullying incidents per district.

TAYLOR KNIGHT: Would you say that it’s impossible to know if every student that is being bullied is reporting it?
SUPERINTENDENT MICHAEL RICHARD: “I would absolutely agree with that.”

The 22News I-Team discovered that only about 2,000 of the 150,000 bullying incidents cited in a Centers for Disease Control and Prevention report have been reported to DESE. State law requires school districts to report all “substantiated bullying incidents.” That is an incident that the school district verified meets the definition of bullying; it isn’t just an allegation, according to DESE spokeswoman Jacqueline Reis.

West Springfield Superintendent of Schools Michael Richard told the I-Team his district reports bullying incidents every year, but they can’t report what they don’t know.

“Letting someone know what is happening is going to be their first step to solving the problem,” said Richard. “We can’t address what’s not shared with us.”

Some reasons students don’t tell anyone about the bullying is because they are ashamed, embarrassed, or even scared.

“They’re told to kill themselves, they are told how, and with instructions – detailed instructions,” explained Ed Zemba, the outgoing President of Unify Against Bullying. “This happens, and it’s terrifying.”

“They are scared because the bully can tell them, ‘if you report this, I will get you, I will get your parents’,” said Unify Against Bullying Executive Director Christine Maiwald.

Unify Against Bullying is a charity that helps children struggling with the issue of bullying using programs and resources.

“There’s a core message that being different is awesome,” Zemba explained of Unify Against Bullying. “If we can convey to these children that the cool thing to do is to step in and say something, to step-up when that moment happens and that the cool thing is to actually get involved, everything changes. Because, if you take away the audience from the bully, the bully disappears.”

Zemba said more of this is needed, and the law can only go so far in helping students feel safe at school.

“This is a tough, tough issue,” said Zemba. “We have to follow up, and say, ‘now that we are telling you to make this a priority, we are going to follow it up with resources you need and programming.'”

Reis told the I-Team that each school district in Massachusetts should already have anti-bullying plans in place. DESE’s website lists resources to help schools and parents deal with the issue.

“Parents who have specific concerns about their child should contact their child’s teacher, principal, or guidance counselor to make sure the family’s concerns are addressed,” said Reis.

Zemba, Richard, and Fardonk all agree.

“Speak up, go to the school. Don’t let this go un-taken care of,” said Fardonk. “Your child’s safety and well-being is first. It’s sad that they are not talking about it. There’s a lot of anger, there’s a lot of sadness inside them that their voices are not being heard.”

“We would much rather that they get notified before something tragic occurs,” explained Zemba.

He said that “something tragic” could be suicide.

“These children can come to the position that their life is worthless,” said Zemba. “They think they genuinely don’t matter. When children get to that space, the ‘tell’ is that they’re quiet. They start to shut down and stop talking.”

If you notice your child struggling with bullying, experts say the best thing to do is talk to them.

“If you’re scared about having this conversation with your kids, then maybe that’s the more reason to have it. If you’re uncomfortable, do it anyway,” said Zemba.

“There are people there who care,” said incoming President of Unify Against Bullying Sarah Goff. “They need to know that those are the people you want to go towards. Even if it seems like you’re having the darkest day and there’s nobody there, there are other kids and other people that are going through that same thing.”

BULLYING INCIDENTS REPORTED

Below is a list of “substantiated bullying incidents” reported per school district for the 2016-2017 and 2017-2018 school years. This information comes from documents obtained from The Massachusetts Department of Elementary and Secondary Education.

HAMPDEN COUNTY:

  • Agawam
    2017: 0
    2018: 8
  • Chicopee
    2017: 5
    2018: 3
  • East Longmeadow
    2017: 1
    2018: 10

“East Longmeadow Public Schools over the last three years has made a focused effort to integrate more social and emotional education for all our students on a daily basis. Professional development during this time has been concentrating on providing staff with a deeper understanding of social and emotional education and how to integrate this into their instructional planning along with strengthening existing programs … Our goal is to ensure we are meeting all of our students’ needs with the most appropriate support to allow all students to grow socially, emotionally and academically.”

– Gordon Smith, Superintendent, East Longmeadow Public Schools
  • Hampden-Wilbraham
    2017: 2
    2018: 18
  • Holyoke
    2017: 18
    2018: 16
  • Longmeadow
    2017: 0
    2018: 0
  • Ludlow
    2017: 3
    2018: 2
  • Monson
    2017: 0
    2018: 1
  • Palmer
    2017: 0
    2018: 2
  • Springfield
    2017: 70
    2018: 89
  • West Springfield
    2017: 7
    2018: 2
  • Westfield
    2017: 5
    2018: 5
  • Gateway
    2017: 1
    2018: 2
  • Southwick-Tolland-Granville
    2017: 0
    2018: 1
  • Tantasqua
    2017: 1
    2018: 1

HAMPSHIRE COUNTY:

  • Amherst
    2017: 0
    2018: 11
  • Belchertown
    2017: 5
    2018: 1
  • Granby
    2017: 0
    2018: 2
  • Hadley
    2017: 0
    2018: 1
  • Hatfield
    2017:1
    2018: 0

“Hatfield is a very small district. While we’ve had reported incidents, they did not rise to the level of bullying as defined by the Department of Elementary and Secondary Education. Hatfield is really not doing anything different. When something is reported, it is investigated and dealt with according to our policy.”

– John Robert, Superintendent, Hatfield Public Schools
  • Pelham
    2017: 0
    2018: 1
  • South Hadley
    2017:0
    2018: 0
  • Ware
    2017: 1
    2018: 5
  • Hampshire Regional
    2017: 0
    2018: 3

FRANKLIN COUNTY:

  • Gill-Montague
    2017: 0
    2018: 16
  • Greenfield
    2017: 3
    2018: 2
  • Ralph C. Mahar
    2017: 1
    2018: 1
  • Frontier Regional
    2017: 0
    2018: 2
  • Mohawk Trail
    2017: 0
    2018: 0
  • Erving
    2017: 0
    2018: 0
  • Pioneer Valley
    2017: 1
    2018: 1

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