NEW MILFORD — Camryn Basher, a student at Schaghticoke Middle School, said there are days when she doesn’t want to get out of bed because of the bullying she knows she will face.
“There’s so many kids at our school being tormented because of race, sexuality, mental disorders, or skin color,” Basher told the New Milford Board of Education. “My friends and I have been called names so awful, I can’t repeat them.”
Basher is one of a number of students and parents who sounded the alarm about bullying at a board of education meeting last week. The majority of the speakers, whose testimony took up the first half of the board meeting, were speaking about the middle school — and accused the district of failing to deter the bullies or protect the students being targeted.
Camryn’s mother, Beth Basher, said at the meeting that she has been on the phone with the district two to three times weekly reporting incidents of bullying. Camryn’s sister, McKenzie, told the board that other students had smeared hand sanitizer all over her clothes one day while she was in class.
But Camryn said that reporting the issues to her teachers have done nothing to deter the bullies.
“It’s not that [the teachers] don’t try to do anything, it’s just the fact that the kids just end up behaving worse after they get a talking to, and go right back to doing the same thing over and over,” said Camryn.
For some students, the bullying had such a negative effect on their mental health that they ended up leaving the district. Parent Holly Newman told the board that her son Joshua, who is in 8th grade at an out-of-district school, had been bullied repeatedly last year.
“He was stabbed with a pencil, smacked in the head, pushed down the stairs, shoved into walls, and repeatedly told to kill himself by students in his class,” said Newman.
Newman said that the district did very little to discipline the bullies, giving them one-day or multi-day suspensions and engaging the bully and her son in “restorative conversations.”
Newman said the district tried to lessen the bullying by adjusting her son’s schedule in various ways to try and keep him away from the bullies.
“The consistent solution to my son being bullied at school was to alter his schedule at the expense of his education,” said Newman.
Meanwhile, she said, he was suffering from headaches and stomach aches at the thought of going to school.
Eventually, Joshua told a friend that he planned to kill himself. That friend alerted her guidance counselor, who told his mother. They called 211.
“The 211 therapist shared that Joshua made it very clear he had begun having these thoughts as a result of being bullied at school,” Newman said. “She told my husband and I, if it were her son, she’d remove him from SMS immediately.”
Newman said that Joshua now attends a different school that she pays for out of pocket.
Another parent who spoke at the board meeting, Tracey Ruscil, said that her twin sons, both autistic, had been bullied on the school bus. She said that someone took a photo of one of her sons with his pants down on the school bus, which she did not find out about for six months.
“At the time, I was worried maybe he was sexually assaulted. The only thing I knew was that his pants were down and someone took a photo. I didn’t know how the pants got down, if someone had touched him or if the photos were shared,” she said.
Ruscil said that the district did not notify her about the incident — she found out from another parent. In a later incident, her sons were the subject of various nasty electronic messages, which she found out about when her older daughter received the messages on her phone.
Like Newman, Ruscil said the district’s response — to transport her students in a van rather than on the schoolbus — was to separate her children rather than discipline the bullies.
“To this day, there’s been no resolution, no apology, no acceptance of guilt in the failure to protect my child,” she said.
Superintendent of New Milford Public Schools Janet Parlato, who joined the district only last week, said that the district “places the safety and well-being of our students as our top priority.” She said that one of the challenges with student discipline is that school employees cannot share information about how students are disciplined with other parents, because that information is confidential.
“We are working diligently to make sure consequences for negative student behavior are consistent, appropriately firm, and aligned with state statute and Board of Education policy,” Parlato wrote in an email.
Other community members who spoke at the board meeting said the problem of bullying in the district has been going on for years.
Megan Byrd, who was PTO president at Schaghticoke last year and the year before, said she witnessed a fight at a school dance that she chaperoned last year. She said that her son, although he wasn’t directly bullied, was “disgusted” by what was happening to his friends.
“The problem is severe and it has been severe for many years,” she said. “And I think it’s gotten worse after COVID. I think a lot of students just don’t know how to interact with anybody anymore, after being at home for a couple years and separated from the social situation.”
Byrd said that she and her son were part of the school climate committee, but that it hasn’t been addressing the bullying.
Parlato said that her office was reviewing the steps that have already been taken to improve the climate at the school, and said that she was working to make sure that the discipline was in line with board of education policies.
“Since September, there have been many actions taken school-wide. For example, team meetings have been held consistently with students to remind them of behavioral expectations, and more importantly, to reinforce the importance of and ways to act as a contributing school member,” Parlato wrote in an email.
Sara DeLucia, a 26-year-old resident of New Milford who graduated from high school in 2014, said she is still dealing with the effects of having been bullied at New Milford High School. Like the parents who spoke, she criticized the district for not making any effort to address the bullying.
“Throughout my entire high school experience, I was just sent to the guidance office. That was all that was done,” said DeLucia. “I was consistently yelled at by my principal that I wasn’t in class enough, that I was always skipping school and it just took my mom battling with the school system to keep me out of school because of how severely bullied I was.”
DeLucia said she was disheartened to hear that bullying continued to happen in the district.
“Hearing all of this tonight, it’s crazy to me that it’s still like this,” she said. “I thought when I left, I was like, hopefully they’ll do something about it, you know?”
And Ruscil said that the bullying was common knowledge, not only in the school community, but within the town as well.
“Everyone knows there’s a problem, especially at Schaghticoke, and I don’t feel like anything’s being done to fix it,” she said.