2018 sui­cide prompts changes to law

Bill changes def­i­ni­tion from ‘re­peated’ to sin­gle in­stance of bul­ly­ing

New Haven Register (Sunday) (New Haven, CT) - - Front Page - By Jo Kroeker

An ele­men­tary school stu­dent named An­jelita Estrada, who re­cently moved to Cheshire with her mother and step­fa­ther, com­mit­ted sui­cide on Dec. 23, 2018. She was 11.

The death of An­jelita, a child re­mem­bered as “funny and charis­matic,” dev­as­tated the Cheshire com­mu­nity. It also put re­newed fo­cus on the is­sue of bul­ly­ing, af­ter fam­ily mem­bers told au­thor­i­ties she had been tor­mented at school. They be­lieved that to be the rea­son she de­cided to take her life.

Dur­ing the just-ended leg­isla­tive ses­sion, it mo­bi­lized law­mak­ers to re­view a law that re­quires school dis­tricts to re­port in­stances of bul­ly­ing. It is not clear that the statute, en­acted in 2002, last up­dated in 2011, has suc­ceeded in its pri­mary pur­pose: re­duc­ing in­stances in which chil­dren dread go­ing to school to face ridicule or worse from their peers.

The law has se­ri­ous flaws, which were made clear dur­ing a Hearst Con­necti­cut re­view of state records and in­ter­views with ex­perts in the field. For one, it de­fines bul­ly­ing as a series of re­peated acts over time against one stu­dent, but does not spec­ify what fre­quency qual­i­fies as re­peated, leav­ing it up to the dis­cre­tion of each dis­trict. As a re­sult, re­port­ing varies greatly from town to town, and cases like An­jelita’s of­ten do not reg­is­ter with state of­fi­cials track­ing bul­ly­ing.

Statewide data show bul­ly­ing rates fell from 1,233 cases in 2013-14, to 820 the fol­low­ing year. The cases then dipped even

fur­ther to 795 and 794, in­creas­ing again last year to 872. To ex­perts, the low num­bers are not a sign of progress, but a trou­bling in­di­ca­tor that bul­ly­ing cases go un­der­re­ported.

State records re­veal the num­ber of ver­i­fied cases of­ten is lower than ex­perts say is ac­cu­rate. For ex­am­ple, Stam­ford Pub­lic Schools, with a pop­u­la­tion of 16,802 kids, re­ported 14 cases of bul­ly­ing last year. Green­wich — which is fac­ing a law­suit from par­ents who con­tend their son com­mit­ted sui­cide in 2013 af­ter suf­fer­ing pro­longed bul­ly­ing — with a pop­u­la­tion of 9,113 kids, re­ported 7 ver­i­fied acts. Fair­field, with a pop­u­la­tion of 9,825 kids, re­ported 4 ver­i­fied acts. Bris­tol and New Haven, with pop­u­la­tions of 7,997 and 21,518 re­spec­tively, re­ported al­most equal cases of bul­ly­ing, 19 and 20, re­spec­tively.

New Bri­tain, with a pop­u­la­tion of 10,179, re­ported 118 cases. New Canaan, with a pop­u­la­tion of 4,171, re­ported 2 cases last year.

“The vari­abil­ity to me was re­ally un­be­liev­able,” said Faith Vos Winkel, a mem­ber of the Of­fice of the Child Ad­vo­cate who spe­cial­izes in child fa­tal­ity and pre­ven­tion. “It made some sense. If no one is go­ing to tell (a dis­trict) what ‘re­peated over time’ is, you have dis­tricts with no bul­ly­ing, and dis­tricts with a lot of bul­ly­ing.”

Vos Winkel, who worked with leg­is­la­tors dur­ing the re­cent ses­sion on the is­sue of school cli­mate, said the dis­crep­ancy is a re­sult of how dis­tricts cap­ture and re­port data. Dis­tricts with no bul­ly­ing are no bet­ter than dis­tricts show­ing a lot of bul­ly­ing, she said. The one with fewer re­ported cases is just com­ing up with its own def­i­ni­tion of “re­peated over time.”

Dur­ing the 2019 leg­isla­tive ses­sion, the state House and the Se­nate unan­i­mously passed Bill No. 7215, which re­de­fines bul­ly­ing as a sin­gle act “that is di­rect or in­di­rect and se­vere, per­sis­tent or per­va­sive.” It then bor­rows lan­guage about the ef­fects of bul­ly­ing from cur­rent law: The act has to cause phys­i­cal or emo­tional harm to an in­di­vid­ual, place an in­di­vid­ual in rea­son­able fear of phys­i­cal or emo­tional harm, or in­fringe on the rights or op­por­tu­ni­ties of an in­di­vid­ual at school.

The bill awaits the sig­na­ture of Gov. Ned La­mont, who has 15 days to sign it af­ter he re­ceives it this month.

“It’s a lot of ter­mi­nol­ogy,” said Char­lene Russell-Tucker, chief op­er­at­ing of­fi­cer for the state Depart­ment of Ed­u­ca­tion. “What does it look like? Will you rec­og­nize it when you see it?”

Vague def­i­ni­tions, low num­bers

No one thing leads some­one to com­mit sui­cide. In An­jelita’s case, po­lice re­ports in­di­cate there were ten­sions at home in ad­di­tion to bul­ly­ing she ex­pe­ri­enced at school. Im­me­di­ately be­fore An­jelita died, she fought with a fam­ily mem­ber, po­lice of­fi­cers wrote in their re­port. She was found alone in her be­d­room 30-40 min­utes later, un­re­spon­sive. Of­fi­cers found no signs of foul play. Whether or not these ten­sions fac­tored in her de­ci­sion, or if there were other, yet un­known in­flu­ences, is im­pos­si­ble to say.

But fam­ily mem­bers are stead­fast in their be­lief that bul­ly­ing played a role in her death. Fam­ily mem­bers whom po­lice in­ter­viewed said An­jelita “felt bul­lied in school be­cause she is His­panic.” A child re­port­edly told her “Mex­i­cans shouldn’t come across the bor­der,” while an­other group of girls re­port­edly formed a group called the “Scangees,” a short­ened form of “Scary Angees,” based on a nick­name.

Un­der the cur­rent law, Pub­lic Act 11-232, which Gover­nor Dan Mal­loy signed in July 2011, the dis­trict would have had to de­ter­mine An­jelita’s al­leged tor­men­tors re­peat­edly harmed her phys­i­cally or emo­tion­ally, or dam­aged her prop­erty, through com­mu­ni­ca­tions, acts or ges­tures for her or­deal to qual­ify as bul­ly­ing.

The new bill, in­tro­duced this past ses­sion by state Rep. Liz Line­han (D-Cheshire), rec­og­nizes that abu­sive treat­ment doesn’t have to be re­peated to be dam­ag­ing.

“One act can be sig­nif­i­cant and trau­ma­tiz­ing,” Vos Winkel said. “I think in the end, we have a prod­uct that will help guide schools.”

Pro­po­nents of the bill hope it ef­fec­tively clar­i­fies the def­i­ni­tion of bul­ly­ing and pushes schools to in­ter­vene more quickly.

“This idea of ‘re­peated over time,’ in par­tic­u­lar, you could drive a train through that def­i­ni­tion,” Vos Winkel said. “We’ve heard from peo­ple for quite a while that that was a real prob­lem.”

Line­han said the def­i­ni­tion was eas­ily ma­nip­u­lated so that dis­tricts would not have to call what they saw bul­ly­ing, and in­ci­dents would not have to be re­ported.

In re­cent years, some dis­trict school boards have caught on, and said the num­bers in their schools are too low to be true.

Last year, the Bridge­port Board of Ed­u­ca­tion slammed school ad­min­is­tra­tors for un­der­re­port­ing cases of bul­ly­ing — in 2017-18, the dis­trict re­ported 19 ver­i­fied cases and 71 cases that were investigat­ed.

The school board her­alded the num­bers this year as “more real” — from fall 2018 to March 2019, there were 327 ac­cu­sa­tions of bul­ly­ing re­ported through­out the dis­trict. Of those, 43 were ver­i­fied.

Some Shel­ton Board of Ed­u­ca­tion mem­bers also con­tested the data their dis­trict col­lected. In Shel­ton dur­ing 2017-18 there were 10 ver­i­fied in­stances of bul­ly­ing among some 4,925 stu­dents. At the time, school of­fi­cials at­trib­uted the low num­ber in part to the state def­i­ni­tion.

“I’m not sur­prised that that con­tin­ues to be a dis­con­nect over what should be re­ported and how,” Russell-Tucker said. “There’s a level of dis­crep­ancy be­tween what peo­ple en­counter and what a dis­trict finds.”

For that rea­son, Russell-Tucker em­pha­sized train­ing on def­i­ni­tions and re­port­ing. “We’re con­stantly look­ing at data qual­ity,” she said. “That’s a big part of the work, in work­ing di­rectly with dis­tricts.”

Leg­is­la­tors craft the law, but the state depart­ment is charged with im­ple­men­ta­tion. Fol­low­ing the 2011 up­date, the depart­ment has pro­vided dis­tricts with train­ing in ad­di­tion to re­sources for ad­dress­ing class­room be­hav­ior and in­tro­duc­ing restora­tive prac­tices.

To im­ple­ment the new law and the change in def­i­ni­tion, the state depart­ment will need a roundup of what kinds of acts need to be re­ported, she said.

Par­ent ed­u­ca­tion

In An­jelita’s case, her teach­ers and par­ents agreed that she was the vic­tim of bul­ly­ing. But some­times, par­ents and school build­ing lead­ers dif­fer over what bul­ly­ing looks like, and if the school is han­dling it ap­pro­pri­ately.

Green­wich par­ent Ner­lyn Pier­son, who sits on the North Street School Safe School Cli­mate Com­mit­tee, said what con­sti­tutes bul­ly­ing can be a source of con­fu­sion and dis­agree­ment for par­ents.

When a po­ten­tial bul­ly­ing sit­u­a­tion arises, par­ents are vo­cal, but of­ten need to be ed­u­cated on what bul­ly­ing is, Pier­son said.

Once a par­ent or child re­ports an in­ci­dent of po­ten­tial bul­ly­ing, ad­min­is­tra­tors are sup­posed to con­duct an in­ves­ti­ga­tion. Many times, they de­ter­mine the child at fault ex­hibits be­hav­ior that needs to be ad­dressed, but it does not rise to the level of bul­ly­ing, she said.

“Even sit­u­a­tions that aren’t deemed bul­ly­ing are taken se­ri­ously and ad­dressed by schools,” Pier­son said. “And if a par­ent sees that is hap­pen­ing, then they’ll feel taken se­ri­ously and that things are be­ing ad­dressed.”

Within the law, in­di­vid­ual school sys­tems craft their own prac­tices for deal­ing with the prob­lem. In Meri­den Pub­lic Schools — where a sui­cide that oc­curred in the early 2000s mo­ti­vated pas­sage of the orig­i­nal state bul­ly­ing law — pro­fes­sion­als nav­i­gate the am­bigu­ous def­i­ni­tion by in­ter­cept­ing bad be­hav­ior early.

Al Lar­son, an ed­u­ca­tional psy­chol­o­gist in Meri­den schools, said he in­ves­ti­gates many re­ports that are “stu­dents with con­flicts … over-us­ing the term ‘bul­ly­ing.’”

Still, stu­dents in the dis­trict take a con­fi­den­tial cli­mate sur­vey in which they an­swer ques­tions, in­clud­ing if they are of­ten “hit or threat­ened” or if “mean ru­mors” are spread about them. If stu­dents re­port any of these in­ci­dents, the sur­vey soft­ware sends au­to­mated emails to school psy­chol­o­gists, so­cial work­ers and ad­min­is­tra­tors.

Some of these in­ci­dents con­sti­tute bul­ly­ing; oth­ers, prob­lems that could even­tu­ally be­come bul­ly­ing, so pro­fes­sion­als call them “pre-bul­ly­ing” in­ci­dents, in­ves­ti­gate them and counsel the im­pli­cated stu­dents.

“I be­lieve these trig­ger email in­ves­ti­ga­tions pre­vent fu­ture bul­ly­ing and im­prove school cli­mate,” Lar­son said.

The num­ber of sus­pen­sions for bul­ly­ing in the dis­trict has de­creased from 18 sus­pen­sions in 2012-13 to 4 in 2017-18. The num­ber of trig­ger emails has in­creased since then, from 373 in the fall of 2012 to 577 in the fall of 2017.

“Meri­den has been paving the way,” Line­han said. “We want to fig­ure out a way to make (the sur­vey) state-wide.”

Gen­er­ally, schools fol­low pro­to­col and “do a thor­ough job,” in in­ves­ti­gat­ing re­ports of bul­ly­ing, said Con­necti­cut lawyer Mark Sher­man, who spe­cial­izes in bul­ly­ing cases.

“The prob­lem is re­ally, that par­ents need to know there is a for­mal and fair process,” Sher­man said. “And they don’t have that con­fi­dence yet.”

When par­ents sus­pect that the process is not be­ing fol­lowed, Sher­man and oth­ers like him step in. He said he re­ceives two calls a week from par­ents about cases of bul­ly­ing go­ing un­ad­dressed.

In those cases, he said, “par­ents feel their voices aren’t be­ing heard.”

An­jelita’s teacher at Doolit­tle School “had re­ported bul­ly­ing is­sues in­volv­ing An­jelita (as the vic­tim) to the school ad­min­is­tra­tion in the weeks etc. prior to her death,” ac­cord­ing to po­lice re­ports. Two in­stances were dig­i­tally sub­mit­ted to the school’s ad­min­is­tra­tion via Google Docs in a “Bully Log.”

With leg­is­la­tors poised to change the law, Sher­man wel­comed the change in def­i­ni­tion.

“This law makes it clearer,” he said. “It’ll cer­tainly trig­ger more com­plaints.”

The bill also de­fines a pos­i­tive school cli­mate, emo­tional in­tel­li­gence and so­cial and emo­tional learn­ing, three com­po­nents ex­perts say help pre­vent bul­ly­ing. Russell-Tucker ap­plauded the spe­cific re­quire­ments the new bill con­tains for a school cli­mate ad­vi­sory collaborat­ive, screen­ings for stu­dents who may be at risk for sui­cide and state-wide school cli­mate sur­veys.

Von Winkel calls the bill a frame­work for think­ing about well­ness and well­be­ing for kids. She hopes school sys­tems will not just check boxes by re­port­ing and bring­ing in ex­perts, and will in­stead find ways to change their cul­ture.

“Let’s stop count­ing,” she said. “Can we just all agree that we want to have an en­vi­ron­ment that is safe and se­cure and kids are be­ing sup­ported? Maybe the time will come that we can get rid of count­ing be­cause ev­ery­one has a state-of-the-art frame­work.”

Line­han said the orig­i­nal ver­sion of her bill had a pro­vi­sion that ac­tu­ally elim­i­nated the re­port­ing man­date, in hopes it would get schools to treat each in­stance of bul­ly­ing more se­ri­ously. The pro­vi­sion was re­moved in com­mit­tee, but she plans to rein­tro­duce it in a newer ver­sion dur­ing the next ses­sion.

“I firmly be­lieve that dis­tricts are hes­i­tant to call bul­ly­ing ‘bul­ly­ing’ be­cause re­port­ing to the state depart­ment puts a stain on their schools,” she said. “In­stead of get­ting to the root cause, their only con­cern is how the school is viewed. Ul­ti­mately, the be­lief is that this ef­fects hous­ing val­ues.”

Have hope

With fi­nan­cial sup­port raised on GoFundMe, An­jelita’s father An­thony paid to have her brought home to New Mex­ico, where she lived most of her life, and buried. Af­ter­ward, he had one re­quest.

“Get our mes­sage out there and maybe we can save an­other child’s life,” the father, who now lives in Ari­zona, wrote on the page. “Just maybe we can keep an­other fam­ily from hav­ing to suf­fer this pain.”

Line­han pledged to do just that. “I will honor An­jelita by fight­ing for change in her mem­ory,” she wrote on GoFundMe. “My heart aches for your fam­ily, and I prom­ise that your sweet an­gel will make a dif­fer­ence in the lives of other chil­dren.”

Vos Winkel, who calls An­jelita “Angie,” is re­view­ing her case as part of a the­matic re­view of re­cent child deaths by sui­cide to make rec­om­men­da­tions to the state.

“Sui­cide isn’t just about one thing,” she said. “There’s a tip­ping point.”

Kids ex­pe­ri­ence pres­sures to keep up in school, have friends and fit in; they have dis­agree­ments with their par­ents; their peers say nasty things to them; and now, they worry about their so­cial me­dia ap­pear­ance, which just con­founds their other con­cerns, Vos Winkel said.

And be­cause their brains are not fully de­vel­oped, chil­dren are im­pul­sive. They com­mit sui­cide be­cause they think, “I can’t bear this right now.”

“Peo­ple need to feel op­ti­mistic about them­selves, about the fu­ture,” Vos Winkel said. “If we can get peo­ple to feel op­ti­mistic, to feel that to­mor­row will be bet­ter.”

Peter Hviz­dak / Hearst Con­necti­cut Me­dia file photo

Doolit­tle School stu­dents pay their re­spects dur­ing a par­ents or­ga­nized vigil Fri­day even­ing in re­mem­brance of de­ceased Doolit­tle School stu­dent 11-year-old An­jelita Estrada at the First Con­gre­ga­tional Church of Cheshire.

Peter Hviz­dak / Hearst Con­necti­cut Me­dia file photo

Sab­rina Wright, of Cheshire, shares her sen­ti­ments dur­ing a Doolit­tle School par­ent or­ga­nized vigil on Feb. 1 at the First Con­gre­ga­tional Church of Cheshire in re­mem­brance of de­ceased Doolit­tle School stu­dent 11-year-old An­jelita Estrada.

Dave Zajac / As­so­ci­ated Press

Rep. Liz Line­han, D-Cheshire, in­tro­duced changes to state bul­ly­ing law that passed unan­i­mously dur­ing the re­cently con­cluded leg­isla­tive ses­sion.

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