NORWICH — Students from several school districts in the eastern part of the state marched around Parade Green in the pouring rain on Saturday to protest bullying and threats of violence in the local districts over the last few months.
Holding signs that read “How do you learn and cope @ the same time?” and “Fear has no place in schools”, a group of about 25 students and parents circled the green, led by a 12th grader with a megaphone leading chants of “I’ll back you up,” and “No silence, no violence.”
Other parents, students and community members crowded under five or six tents that dripped rain and nearly blew away in the wind several times.
One of the students who participated, tenth grader Isabella Hill, said that she had been homeschooling for the past few months, after having been bullied at her high school in Lebanon. She said she ate lunch in the bathroom and could “barely even go to class some days.”
“Basically, the bathroom and music helped me escape everything,” she said.
Hill’s mother, Stephanie Swindell, said that her daughter had been dealing with bullying since the start of the pandemic. Swindell said the school had gone “above and beyond” trying to make accommodations for her, but that the bullying continued anyway.
Swindell said that, as a mother, watching what her daughter was going through was “excruciating” and “disheartening.”
“This was supposed to be my daughter’s high school experience. And she already had to deal with the pandemic and then to have to live through that and then try to have what’s supposed to be more of a normal school year, and then to encounter these deep levels of bullying, it’s been not an experience that any child should have to encounter,” said Swindell.
Miah Rivera, a freshman at Norwich Free Academy, said she had also been staying out of school after dealing with bullying. Rivera estimated she had been out of school for about a month and a half. She said she did not want to return to school.
“I feel like I’m not going to be able to cope,” Rivera said.
Rivera’s mother, Wandalia Rodriguez, said that Rivera had been harassed on social media, receiving messages saying “end your life” or “kill your life.”
Rodriguez said her daughter would call her from the bathroom of the school and beg her to come and pick her up. Rodriguez said that she would sometimes have to leave work to pick up her daughter, or she would have to send her older son to pick her up.
“I used to love going to school,” Rodriguez said. “And it’s so sad to have these kids literally hate going to school. It shouldn’t be like that.”
Amanda Chouinard, whose daughter is a seventh grader at Griswold Middle School, said that her daughter had also been the target of bullying since the end of last school year.
“Her mental health has just completely disintegrated at this point,” said
“The power and impact of words”
Denielle Beaudet-Sandoval, a co-organizer of the march and the mother of Beaudet, said that a number of parents whose children were being bullied had come to her and co-organizer Marcela Lee asking for help.
“We realized how much parents need information on how to help their children, because bullying… it doesn’t discriminate. It’s everywhere. All the schools are struggling with it,” she said.
Beaudet-Sandoval said they added in a component to address school violence in light of the multiple school shooting threats that have happened across the state in the past week, including a lockdown at Norwich Free Academy on Monday after a student made what the police considered a “possible threat.”
At the rally, parents and students alike said they wanted to see more mental health resources in the schools. Parents also said they wanted administrators to take incidents of bullying and harassment more seriously, and students said they felt that the schools were not making addressing bullying one of their top priorities.
Kailey Beaudet, a sophomore at Norwich Free Academy and Beaudet-Sandoval’s daughter, said that she thought the worst bullying happened on social media. She said there were times when she didn’t feel safe at school, and said that she felt students weren’t being heard.
Michael O’Farrell, director of communications at Norwich Free Academy, said that each class has a five-member team of three counselors, a school psychologist and a social worker. He said that each student is assigned to a counselor, and that they also partner with the community to provide the students with resources.
“We focus every day on providing the safest environment for our students. We take bullying very seriously and any and all reports are thoroughly investigated,” O’Farrell said in an email. “We have to come together because our most important assets are suffering — our kids. There is a strong sense of mental health issues, anxiety and disrespect. We have to come together as a community to resolve this. We need to provide more resources when necessary, and we are more than willing to do so.”
Beaudet-Sandoval said that a goal of the rally was to provide parents with information about what resources they have if their child is being bullied in school. She said she also wanted to empower students to push back against the bullying they are seeing in the schools and to form a network of children who could support one another.
“We’re trying to just start here and hopefully create some kind of informal coalition of people that, you know, when a kid’s struggling, we want them to know here’s people that you can call,” she said.
Students who have experienced bullying and their parents weren’t the only people to join the rally. Players on the Norwich Free Academy basketball team also came, spurred on by their coach, Dave Cornish, who said he had been looking for ways to get the team more involved in the community.
“I thought, this is a great opportunity for the kids to get out here and show their face in support for something that they may not think it’s affecting them directly, but it can be indirectly,” he said. “They just don’t understand the impact that this has. So this is good for them.”
Lee, a self-described mental health and youth advocate, encouraged the students to stand up for one another, and especially urged the athletes to actively take a stand against bullying.
“I challenge you guys — find a kid who’s sitting by themselves, pick up your lunch trays and sit with that kid,” Lee told the basketball players. “That sad kid, that lonely kid, you have no idea what that kid is going through at home.”
Lee had the students sign a pledge promising to speak up for others being bullied. She also encouraged them to take rubber bracelets bearing the words #NoSilenceNoViolence and “I’ll Back You Up!!” to give out to their friends.
She reminded them that the things people say to one another make a real difference.
“The power and impact of words are so underestimated,” said Lee.
Senior Jayden Desilus, a basketball player at Norwich Free Academy who had led the marching students around the green while chanting into the megaphone, said he attended the rally after hearing stories about other students being bullied.
“I really just wanted to bring awareness to bullying, not just at my school, but high schools all across the country,” he said. “To make people know that what they say matters, whether it’s positive or negative.”
Rivera, the Norwich Free Academy freshman, said that she came to the rally because she wanted to “make a change” and to help students who couldn’t speak out.
“I’m here to let everybody know and all these kids know that you are not alone and we’re going to make a change for you and so many more,” she said.
This story has been updated to include comments by school officials