By Rashed Mian and Christopher Twarowski
Part 30 of our award-winning series “Our Children’s Health”
For Jamie Isaacs, the torment began in second grade at Wenonah Elementary School.
A group of girls would repeatedly yank her hair and stab her with sharpened pencils. Sachem Central School District officials did nothing to stop the abuse, her family alleges.
Starting in 2003, the bullying intensified throughout the next six years, with the attacks escalating in their viciousness. More children joined in. By the fourth grade Isaacs was receiving harassing phone calls and threatening instant messages (IMs) declaring the bullies were going to break into her Lake Grove home and kill her. In fifth grade, even one of Isaacs’ teachers started calling her names, her parents charge.
Soon after entering Samoset Middle School, Isaacs learned of a hate club against her with the collective goal of pain or death. The following year saw 22 children—both boys and girls—stealing from her, threatening her on a daily basis, breaking into her locker and sabotaging school projects. The online threats via e-mail and chats turned sexual. The bullies also turned against her younger brother.
Again, Isaacs’ parents say school administrators and the police did nothing. In some cases, school officials actually threatened and harassed the family, they allege. Eventually, Isaacs’ parents say, school officials told them there were just too many bullies involved, there was nothing they could do to help, and suggested their daughter would be better off at a private school. The family has several pending lawsuits against the district.
Requests for comment for this story from Sachem Central School District’s superintendent were responded to by its PR office, which sent a statement that included:
“The [district] has a zero tolerance policy on bullying. The District implements many programs each school year to teach anti-bullying and tolerance in the elementary, middle and high school levels.
“The District cannot comment on individual cases due to student privacy laws and ongoing litigation.”
Isaacs, now 14 and an A-plus student at The Knox School (which also has a zero-tolerance policy toward bullying), is just one of countless children across the country who suffer the brunt of bullying, an age-old process of victimization ranging from name-calling to physical assaults to alienation by peers both in and out of school. The rise in popularity and accessibility of the Internet, social networking sites and cell phones among youths, however, has transformed the unfortunate hazings into relentless, public brutalization—known as cyberbullying—that follows its victims out of the schoolyard or cafeteria to anywhere there is Internet access, and in some cases, may have resulted in the deaths of their targets.
The January suicide of 15-year-old Phoebe Prince of South Hadley High School in Massachusetts grabbed global headlines and sparked cries for tougher laws against bullying. Prince had been the subject of relentless bullying by fellow students—and the attacks didn’t end with her death. Bullies continued their assaults on the wall of her Facebook memorial page. On Long Island, cyberbullies also relentlessly attacked the Facebook and Formspring pages of 17-year-old Alexis Pilkington, of West Islip, following her suicide in March.
These cases, as well as Isaacs’, inspired Suffolk County Legis. Jon Cooper (D-Lloyd Harbor) to propose local anti-bullying and cyberbullying legislation that would hold perpetrators—including school teachers and administrators who do not act against such instances—accountable.
Isaacs stressed the need for such laws at a May public hearing before the county legislature. She was joined by her parents Ron and Anne and a slew of other families whose children had also suffered at the hands of bullies.
“I’m 14 years old and I’m a survivor of bullying,” she told lawmakers. “I am here standing in front of you today because of the love and support of my family. I’m alive while other kids are dead because of effects that bullying had on them.
“This bill represents justice,” she continued. “Let me be the example of hope for all the kids that may think that their hope is gone.”
The county legislature recently adopted Cooper’s anti-cyberbullying and cyberstalking bills, which make cyberbullying a minor and/or cyberstalking an adult both misdemeanors punishable by $1,000 fine and/or up to a year’s imprisonment. Following fierce opposition from school administrators and teachers, Cooper withdrew a third bill—to be named “Jamie’s Law,” after Isaacs—aimed at holding them equally accountable.
In its place, Cooper has proposed the establishment of an anti-bullying task force comprised of local and state lawmakers, law enforcement officials, school administrators and others to study the issue and develop reform recommendations for the various entities.
Outside the Law
The statements read like the mad ramblings of a serial killer:
“u dumb fuck ill kill u”
“u have no life ur an outcast and that’s all u will ever be”
“I’m gonna fuck u up so bad nobody’s gonna recognize your babyface fucking bitch”
“ill fucking send you to your grave bitch”
“u fuckin ritard I’m going to kill u”
They are, in fact, IMs from one 13-year-old Suffolk County middle schooler [whose name, school, town and victim’s identity have been intentionally left out of this story to prevent any more abuse] to another 13-year-old Suffolk County middle schooler. And there are pages of them.
Seated opposite his mother at a small rectangular table in the kitchen of their home, the victim [we’ll call him Connor], a skinny, lanky-framed teenager, gives short, abrupt descriptions when sharing his current ordeal with the Press.
He walks through town always looking over his shoulder. He’s not scared, just nervous, not knowing what slur would be screamed at him next or who may be lurking behind him, ready to pounce.
He’s suffered a year of bullying at school and cyberbullying that began when he moved to the new district with his mom and two siblings last year.
According to his mother, the bullying started during the school’s homecoming football game. A group of kids confronted the 13-year-old, ready to fight. There had been a cell phone text message circulating among students earlier that week that Connor was going to get beat up. He had no clue.
One bully brandished a knife and sliced the seat of Connor’s bicycle, ripping out the foam and carving his name into the paint. The group then launched it off the side of a steep hill, repeatedly.
“They circled me,” Connor tells the Press. “They kept taking my bike and throwing it down.”
Connor sheepishly shows what’s left. Holding what now resembles a mangled metal pretzel up in the air, the only segment of his bike remaining is its frame. The seat is long gone. So are the gears. The pegs once screwed into its sides were tossed into the forest.
The self-afflicted cuts down Connor’s left forearm—initially etched just two months ago—speak volumes more about what he has endured. The carvings appear fresh, red. Obvious.
His mother believes the self-mutilation could be indicative that her son is suicidal.
“I don’t know,” he says when asked why he slashes himself.