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KIYC: New Jersey schools may be underreporting bullying – Part 1

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A Kane In Your Corner investigation finds kids are being bullied in school much more often than some New Jersey school districts are saying.

Arianna Green says she was traumatized by years of bullying by classmates at West Milford High School. “If I was in school with them, I was afraid that they were going to attack me,” she says. “That was the scariest thing because I knew that if I was in school, nobody would come to help me.”

Green and her parents are suing the West Milford School District, alleging it failed to protect Arianna.

New Jersey schools are required to investigate reports of bullying based on a “distinguishing characteristic”. The lawsuit alleges administrators found racist texts sent to Arianna by classmates fell short of that standard. The texts included the N-word and messages like, “Get me some fried chicken and Kool-Aid” and “KKK coming for you… lock your door.”

The lawsuit also alleges that a school official ignored Arianna the next year as she was assaulted in a hallway.

The Greens aren’t alone. Several other West Milford families say their complaints were not taken seriously. The district paid $172,500 to settle a bullying lawsuit brought by another student in 2014.

Victim's Voice: Arianna Green talks about her bullying experience

Tracy Huber, a parent advocate whose husband served on the school board, believes the district has a culture of overlooking bullying.

“I’ve had board members say, ‘Stop being negative, we don’t want to hear how bad the school is,’” she says. “Well if you don’t acknowledge the problem, how do you fix it?”

Even when West Milford has found bullying happened, Kane In Your Corner found the district underreported the number of incidents to the New Jersey Department of Education for four straight years.

Extended interview with Pat Wright, executive director of the NJ Principals’ Association

In 2014, for example, the district reported five Harassment, Intimidation and Bullying (HIB) incidents. School board minutes show there were actually 14. In 2015, the district claimed there were no HIB incidents; the minutes show there were seven.

West Milford Schools Superintendent Alex Anemone refused repeated interview requests and did not answer questions when Kane In Your Corner caught up to him after a recent school board meeting.

West Milford may not be the only district where cases were underreported. Experts say the statewide figures are so low that they defy belief. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention found 1 in 5 students are bullied each year. The most recent New Jersey numbers come to just 1 in 200. And 174 school districts, with an enrollment of more than 88,000, reported no bullying incidents.

Listen to the Kane In Your Corner companion podcast on the Bullied in School series:

Stuart Green, who chaired New Jersey’s Anti-Bullying Task Force, says unless the state provides more oversight, districts will never report every case because, “It would make a district, in their honesty, look really bad, like a violent district.”

Extended interview with Stu Green, former chair of NJ Anti-Bullying Task Force

Even though it was never classified as bullying, what happened to Arianna Green has taken a toll. She says she’s not strong enough to attend college and is focusing on “dealing with my mental state of mind. I need to take care of that before I do anything else.”

MORE: KIYC: Families who report bullying feel no one is on their side - Part 2 

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