Bullying is a problem in schools across the country. When it comes to preventing the problem, are Connecticut schools making the grade?
Nearly 160,000 American students miss classes every day because they fear being targeted by bullies.
In Connecticut, school districts are required to have anti-bullying policies in place, as well as prevention plans, but state reports show many districts have been slow to comply with the law.
The issue of bullying recently grabbed national headlines with the suicide of Phoebe Prince, 15, in Massachusetts and the arrests of the teenagers accused of relentlessly taunting her.
The reality is that bullying happens every day across the country in schools and online.
Here in Connecticut, Mayelline Ferraz, 14, of Hartford, says she was attacked by a group of girls during a food fight in March at her middle school.
"They were kicking me in the head and one girl was on me like almost the whole time," Ferraz said. The girls were suspended, according to Ferraz, but she fears they'll strike again.
Galen Riordan, 16, of Willington, says kids started tormenting him in the fifth grade at his middle school.
"People would be calling me gay because of my name or for the fact that I wasn't interested in getting a girlfriend," said Riordan. He's now attending an alternative high school and says the bullying has stopped, but the pain and anxiety linger.
Connecticut's bullying law requires districts to have a policy, investigate incidents and report those numbers to the state. Under a 2008 update, they're also required to revise their policies to include prevention and send a copy of their entire plan to the state Department of Education.
In a February 2010 report to the Legislature, the state Department of Education detailed the progress of districts around the state.
According to the report, by February 2009, less than one-third of districts sent a copy of their plan to the state, which was the deadline required by law.
By November 2009, all districts submitted their plans, except for four charter schools. However, the report shows 59 districts had not revised their policies since 2008 and may not be in compliance with the law.
"While many districts are working exceptionally hard to make school environments safer for their students, some are apparently doing very little," Commissioner Mark McQuillan said in the report.
Training in districts is also lagging behind, according to Elaine Zimmerman, the executive director of the Connecticut Commission on Children.
"We need plans where the whole school is trained, where parents are trained so they know the impact, and students," said Zimmerman. "Some kids really, just for whatever reason, want to hurt somebody, but mostly when children and youth learn the negative impact of bullying, they stop it."
State records from the 2006-2007, the 2007-2008 and the 2008-2009 school years show 29 districts, charter schools and state schools did not report any incidents of bullying to the state for any of those years. Zimmerman calls that questionable, saying "Bullying is happening all the time."
Southington is one school district that is in compliance with state law.
Supt. Dr. Joseph Erardi says they deal with incidents of bullying directly, and their prevention efforts include training for administrators, teachers and even seminars for parents.
"Parents want to be absolutely reassured that their child is in a safe environment, which is nurturing for teaching and learning," Dr. Erardi said. "There is no child that can be safe if they're victimized by bullying."
Bullying advocates and victims in Connecticut hope the issue becomes a bigger priority and say the Massachusetts case should be a wake-up call for districts everywhere.
"They need to do better, way better," Ferraz said.
"It still happens," said Riordan.