Being bullied has become a way of life for some students on Long Island, as much a part of their daily lives in school as lunch periods or history class. And it's also invading their cyber lives.
The Suffolk County district attorney's office recently formed a four-person unit to deal with cyberbullying crimes, and Nassau prosecutors are sponsoring a conference on bullying and Internet safety next month. Suffolk was the first county in the state to enact legislation this spring specifically making cyberbullying a misdemeanor.
Its sponsor, Legis. Jon Cooper (D-Lloyd Harbor) submitted another bill that would have held school officials civilly liable for failing to address bullying, but withdrew it in favor of the state's new Dignity for All Students Act that forces districts to address bullying. Saying he had received at least 150 calls from families who said their children had been bullied, Cooper called the problem "an epidemic in our schools and communities."
Nationally, the U.S. Department of Education in October warned districts that failure to address bullying based on sexual orientation or religion could violate civil rights statutes and result in a loss of federal funds.
Many school administrators say they are trying new approaches that go beyond detention and suspension, counseling and cajoling. They range from character education lessons, workshops on homophobia and cyberbullying to assemblies with guest speakers, forums, seminars and special events.
Long Island Gay and Lesbian Youth has held workshops in 100 of Long Island's 124 school districts. The nonprofit Child Abuse Prevention Services said requests for its classroom workshops on bullying have risen sharply this school year.
But still, bullying persists.
"Anyone who tells you they can eliminate it is dishonest," said Garden City Middle School Principal Peter Osroff. "The key is to minimize it and effectively address it when it does occur."
Complaining may not work
Targeted youngsters may be victimized for years, despite complaints to schools, parents say.
Christopher Alexander, a resident physician in family practice, said his son Jake has been bullied by groups of students at Long Beach High School since the family moved from Delaware two years ago. "They call him a hick and a hillbilly," Alexander said. "His grades started dropping, and he spent all of last year at lunch in the cafeteria with his head down so he didn't have to interact with anybody. This year it's gotten worse, he gets harassed by the same group of kids every day."
Some educators say that nothing short of schoolwide culture change - and schoolwide training and vigilance - reduces bullying.
"It's about time schools were held more accountable for it," Osroff said. "I'm not a big believer in just bringing in special speakers or events; it's about changing the culture and what we are doing day by day within the schools in every classroom, every day."
There's evidence that such efforts have made a difference. In the 2008-2009 school year, Long Island school districts reported 3,023 incidents of "intimidation, harassment, menacing or bullying" to the state, an 11 percent drop from 2006. But those don't include off-campus incidents such as cyberbullying, for which there's no reliable count.
Garden City Middle School, among others on Long Island, started staff training modeled on the Olweus Bullying Prevention Program, one of only a handful of programs cited by federal authorities as effective in reducing bullying. Two staffers at the Long Island Network of Community Services in Hauppauge recently became trained in the Olweus program, which provides a blueprint for school staff to recognize and intervene in bullying while moving students from bystander to "resister, defender, witness."
"It is not a quick fix; a school has to make a commitment to implement with fidelity," said Marlene Snyder of the Institute on Family & Neighborhood Life at Clemson University, where the program, now in more than 7,000 schools nationwide, is based.
One approach gaining traction in schools tries to prevent bullying by teaching empathy and social skills. The Oceanside School District, for example, has begun to use a social and emotional literacy program to help staff and students "get in touch with emotions and deal with them in a more positive way than bullying," according to district Superintendent Herb R. Brown. Suspended students spend the day in an off-site facility to study and meet with psychologists.
Heidi Birr, a sixth-grade social studies teacher in West Babylon and co-chair of her school's committee on character education, said if younger students were taught positive behavior, "hopefully in another five years, maybe there will be less bullying."
Jane Riese, Olweus's director of training, said ultimate responsibility for reducing bullying rests with adults. And adults, she said, often fail to recognize and intervene in bullying behavior.
Wes Nemenz, safe schools coordinator at the Long Island Gay and Lesbian Youth advocacy group in Bay Shore, said he hears from faculty in training workshops that they don't know what to say to stop hurtful language.
Mark, a teen at William Floyd High School in Mastic Beach who has not told his family or school friends that he's gay, said he's been teased since middle school, even before he understood he was gay. He's frequently been called names, pushed and laughed at by numerous students, often in groups, he said. But teachers in hallways and classrooms usually either fail to notice the bullying or ignore it, he said.
He once told an adult at the school what was taking place, he said. "She said she'd talk to administrators, but I never got called in the office or anything like that," he said.
Mark wants teachers to speak out to defend him and the bullying to stop.
"I just want to be in school," he said. "I don't want to be there and all day have people calling me names and pushing me."
Paul Casciano, William Floyd School District superintendent, encouraged students to be persistent in reporting bullying so the school could act on it.
"Certainly students have to be comfortable coming forward and they have to have an adult in the building they feel comfortable coming to," he said."It is complex and challenging, and every person has a different level of confidence."
The school, he said, conducts programs to promote tolerance, has a hotline for reporting bullying and believes the school has an accepting atmosphere. "I don't think this incident is characteristic of the level of acceptance at the high school," he said.
Mostly, students want others to speak up. Cat Kryjak, 16, a lesbian student at West Babylon High, said she wasn't bullied, but objected to the reluctance of a teacher, whose office was labeled a safe zone for gay students, to chide students who mockingly pretended to be gay. "You have the safe zone up, how about you actually make me feel safe?" she said.