Hundreds of LI schools reported zero cases of bullying and cyberbullying. Parents say that's misleading.
The behavioral changes in Jeannie Sailer's daughter were slight, but they were enough to make the Lindenhurst mom worry. Her 13-year-old would suddenly break down before a big exam despite studying all night. Her confidence seemed to have dwindled overnight and she no longer felt excited to wake up for school.
Sailer realized her daughter was being bullied.
The daily barrage of racial slurs and name-calling started in the halls of Lindenhurst Middle School and followed Sailer's daughter home. Sailer saw the disturbing text messages on her daughter's phone.
Classmates taunted her now 7th grader by sending sexual and inappropriate images. They crossed the line when they started sending photos of her house, pretending to be outside.
"At the time, she was home alone so it scared her," Sailer says. "I received a call from a hysterical little girl crying, 'They know where I live. I think they're outside.'"
Sailer blocked the number from her daughter's phone, but a week or so later, the messages would start up again from a new number. The students would find her on social media and send her inappropriate videos. The cyberbullying went on for months, long after Sailer brought it to the school's attention.
Sailer told Team 12 Investigates that she filed several Dignity for All Students Act (DASA) complaints, which are the forms used to report incidents of bullying or cyberbullying against students.
Under DASA, school districts are required to release results of an investigation to all parties involved, whether the allegations are founded or unfounded. Sailer did not always hear back from the school and the bullying persisted, impacting her daughter's education.
"At what point does this stop?" Sailer asked. "As a parent, you're like 'What do I do now?' I don't want another family to endure what we went through for three months."
Sailer and her teenage daughter are not alone. Other parents reached out to Team 12 investigates with similar concerns about how schools handle incidents of bullying and cyberbullying. They believe a lack of response by schools is part of the problem and accuse schools of turning a blind eye.
"All of the bullying started in the middle of the 6th grade," said Melissa Kurz, of Lindenhurst. "No responses to any of my DASA reports."
Richard Sevon, of Lindenhurst, said he filed a least 15 DASA reports, but that the school's only solution was to give his daughter a pass to leave class two minutes early and avoid confrontation in the halls. It didn't address the cyberbullying.
"My daughter was so severely bullied last year, I had to remove her from the district," Sevon said.
A pattern of underreporting
Team 12 Investigates why these incidents are not reflected in the data that the Lindenhurst School District submits to the state. DASA requires school districts to report all incidents of bullying and cyberbullying to the New York State Education Department.
We reviewed the most recent state data available, which is from the 2020-2021 School Year. It lists only two cases of bullying at Lindenhurst Middle School and zero cases of cyberbullying districtwide.
Anthony Davidson, who became superintendent at Lindenhurst in July, declined an on-camera interview. He emailed Team 12 Investigates a statement through the district's public relations firm, Syntax, saying they offer "an open and transparent dialogue" with families during DASA investigations.
"Furthermore, as a new leader within this district I recognize that detrimental behaviors, which occur both inside and outside of schools, such as bullying, harassment, intimidation, drug abuse and self-injury have to be addressed in partnership with the community, so I have formed a community coalition," Davidson's statement read. "We are working to create this partnership which we believe will help to bridge the gaps between the school and the community so that we may better support our children."
At a Board of Education meeting in September, Davidson outlined his plans to improve the district's response to DASA complaints. He also acknowledged past mistakes.
"We weren't as a district, prior to my arrival, meeting our obligations in terms of reporting," Davidson said. "That's something that has been remediated and will not continue."
Team 12 Investigates four years of data that show a pattern of underreporting at schools across Long Island.
For the 2020-2021 school year, we found more than half of Long Island schools did not report a single incident of bullying or cyberbullying. Out of 649 public schools, 424 reported zero incidents of bullying and 482 reported zero incidents of cyberbullying.
Schools with thousands of students claimed they had a bully-free year. Advocates with anti-bullying organizations that work with these schools said there's no way this could be true.
"No, I definitely don't think it's possible and I don't think any of them would rationally try to make that argument," said Joe Salamone, executive director of the Long Island Coalition Against Bullying (LICAB). "I do think their ability to have done something about it when they weren't physically in their building was made much harder though."
LICAB offers workshops and programs to schools through push-in style presentations. Salamone said they saw an increase in the number of school districts reaching out to their organization for assistance confronting bullying related issues post-pandemic.
"I think it makes perfect sense as to why we saw the increase that we did and still continue to see it," Salamone added
'Be honest that it does exist'
We emailed 65 superintendents to see why more cases aren't being reported to the state and hear their plans to crackdown on bullying. We never heard back from 51 superintendents who are responsible for hundreds of thousands of students.
Six superintendents of districts with varying needs and populations sent similar statements through the same public relations firm Syntax. They either said there were no incidents that year that rose to the level of DASA reporting or that their numbers were low because the pandemic limited student interaction.
Riverhead superintendent, Dr. Augustine Tornatore, was one of the few superintendents who agreed to talk with Team 12 Investigates directly. The school district reported 15 cases of bullying and seven cases of cyberbullying during the 2020-2021 school year.
"To me, I don't think that any district would report zero because again, especially during the times of the hybrid instruction and remote instruction, bullying didn't happen in person. It happened through cyberbullying," Dr. Tornatore says.
Riverhead has a districtwide app for anonymous reporting, called ShareIt. Administrators expect to see more complaints about bullying or cyberbullying submitted through the app, especially with another return to the classroom after two tumultuous years.
"It's imperative for districts to be transparent and be honest that it does exist," Dr. Tornatore said.
'I can stand up for myself and for other people'
A week and a half before the last day of school, Sailer's daughter spoke at a Lindenhurst Board of Education meeting about the bullying and cyberbullying she had endured for months. She hoped that it would help school board members understand the gravity of the problem within the district.
Sailer said they are still going through the healing process, but watching her daughter bravely share her story was a turning point.
"That's all I ask for, is to raise a strong woman that will stand up for herself and say, 'You know what? Physically I cannot do something, but my words I have power in my words. I can stand up for myself and for other people,'" Sailer said.
Here are statements from six superintendents regarding their low numbers of reported incidents:
Statement from Todd Winch, Superintendent of Levittown Public Schools
Over the course of the school year, all incidents that are reported to us are investigated and addressed, however there are specific criteria set by New York State in order for an event to be classified as a "material incident" and included in the School Safety and Education Climate (SSEC) report. The six elementary schools did not have any material incidents of discrimination, harassment, bullying or cyberbullying to report last school year. The 4 secondary schools did have material incidents to report. The district addresses complaints of discrimination, harassment, bullying/cyberbullying through a rigorous process, which can be found in our Dignity for All Students district policy. Additionally, all schools across the district provide extensive instruction in character education, including programs such as Get a Voice and RISE. The district is proud that both Salk Middle School and Lee Road Elementary School are our first schools to have been designated as National Schools of Character.
Statement from Dr. Yiendhy Farrelly, Superintendent of Schools at West Babylon UFSD
The district follows New York State DASA guidelines, not all incidents in every school rise to the level of DASA reporting, but all are handled appropriately through a rigorous internal process of review and resolution. Many student resources are available, which are guided by social workers, psychologists and guidance counselors who conduct group sessions with students, counseling, student mediation and mindfulness practices.
Statement from Vincent Randazzo Island Park UFSD Superintendent of Schools
The data set being reviewed was recorded under pandemic conditions where the district operated on a remote/hybrid schedule, practiced social distancing, dividers were used and students wore masks. As a result of these measures student interaction was limited, creating an anomaly in various data sets, including DASA reporting for the school year. The district has a strong focus on inclusivity within the No Place for Hate schools program that features school-based activities and lessons and assemblies that celebrate diversity. Districtwide we are cultivating community minded citizens with social emotional learning practices that include mindfulness and movement practices.
Statement from Dr. Kevin Scanlon Superintendent of Three Village Central School District
The district takes pride that five schools had no reported incidents of bullying and follows the DASA system to register, investigate, and respond to reported instances of alleged bullying. As an educational community we continue to work with students in every school through our Positive Behavioral Interventions and Support (PBIS) programs and are embarking on Restorative Practices in the secondary schools and Smarts program in the elementary level that educate students on better methods to resolve conflicts.
Statement from Dr. Kenneth A. Card, Jr., Superintendent of Schools East Meadow School District
There were no bullying incidents that rose to the level of DASA during the reporting period for those schools.
Statement from Dr. Timothy P. Hearney, Bayport-Blue Point Superintendent of Schools
Each school in the district reports bullying incidents according to New York State DASA guidelines. Throughout our schools we offer a variety of age appropriate, educational programs aimed at providing for the overall mental and emotional wellbeing of our student body. These programs include monthly themes, in-school student workshops, and a wide variety of clubs and extra-curricular activities for the students to participate in.