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Accuracy of schools' bullying reports questioned in wake of 11-year-old Manchester student's suicide

New Hampshire Union Leader

June 25. 2018 4:30PM
Skylar Desmarais, 11, committed suicide June 20, 2018, in Pittsfield after suffering from bullying. 

Suicide Hotlines
Crisis intervention services are available 24 hours a day, seven days a week to any person in the Granite State through the state Department of Health and Human Services' Bureau of Behavioral Health at 271-5000.

Those dealing with an immediate crisis are urged to call 911, call the National Suicide Prevention Hotline Lifeline at 1-800-273-TALK (8255), visit the emergency room at your local hospital or contact the local community mental health center.

Teri Desmarais watched in pain as her granddaughter changed.

The spunky 11-year-old, who shaved the sides of her head and wore what she wanted, drew into herself during her fifth-grade year at Highland-Goffe's Falls Elementary School in Manchester. Once outgoing, Skylar soon didn't want to leave her room.

On the bus, over the internet, classmates said that if they looked like Sky Desmarais they'd want to die. Twice, Desmarais attempted suicide. Her school assigned an employee to stay with her during morning and afternoon hours at school, but when an adult wasn't nearby the bullying continued and got worse.

"She was amazing in spelling and reading - she could read a book a day if you let her - math, not so much," Teri Desmarais said. "She was a natural born actress. ... She did all this stuff and it made her happy. She was a very rounded young lady, and then over the last few months we saw our sweet, loving Skylar get more on the darker side and very sad."

On Wednesday, Skylar Desmarais took her own life at her father's home in Pittsfield. 

As told by schools' self-reported statistics, the story of bullying in New Hampshire's public schools is one of great progress. Since the signing of a landmark anti-bullying law, the number of incidents recorded by schools has dropped by more than half, from 5,561 in the 2010-2011 school year to 2,233 in 2016-2017, according to Department of Education data.

But advocates and state officials say those numbers belie the reality for Skylar and other students. More than a fifth of Granite State high-schoolers, for example, reported in a 2017 survey that they were bullied on school property during the previous year.

The Youth Risk Behavior Survey is administered annually to students across the country. Since 2009, the rate at which New Hampshire high school students say they have been bullied has stayed the same - between 21 and 22 percent - even as schools report more than 50 percent reductions in claims of bullying.

The rate at which schools investigate students' claims and find actual incidents of bullying has also dropped dramatically at the high school level. In 2010-2011, high schools confirmed bullying in 58 percent of reported incidents. Seven years later, it has dropped to 29 percent.

Some schools have put a lot of effort into stopping bullying, advocates say, but they believe the discrepancies in the data are evidence that some schools are exploiting weaknesses in the state's law to under-report and underinvestigate claims of bullying.

"I think what's happened in New Hampshire is that there were a couple of key court cases that made people realize that the law - which we thought at the time was the best law in the nation - had no guts to it," said Malcolm Smith, a former University of New Hampshire professor who is one of the nation's foremost experts on bullying.

In 2011, the family of a 12-year-old Manchester girl sued the district after she was beat up in a cafeteria, arguing that the school did not notify them or do enough to stop the abuse. The case made its way to the state Supreme Court, which in 2015 ruled that New Hampshire's anti-bullying law prohibits parents from suing districts over bullying.

Laws in other states do allow such lawsuits.

"I think what's happening is that those (school-reported) figures are not accurate," Smith added. "There's no checks or balances on those. The reporting systems in many districts are either nonexistent or just done by somebody out of thin air."

Stephen Berwick is the Department of Education's coordinator for dispute resolution and constituent complaints and helps parents who believe their children are being bullied navigate the system. Part of the issue, he said, is that students often don't have the same strict definition of bullying that the law sets out. And in the "Live Free or Die" state, where the key word in education is local control, state officials are limited in how they can monitor and enforce uniformity.

It is up to administrators to decide whether an incident of teasing meets the bar of causing emotional distress or hindering a child's education.

"Based on our conversations with families, school districts have to be approached with a fairly specific claim of bullying so that they will conduct an investigation under the statute," said Mike Skibbie, policy director for the Disability Rights Center, which represents students with disabilities in bullying cases. "And if the claim is not specific, and under the right terminology, some districts will not do the investigation that the statute requires."

Teri Desmarais said that in her granddaughter's case, the school did intervene by speaking to the bullies and assigning Skylar a chaperone. But the adult couldn't follow her everywhere, and the bullying continued off school grounds and online. Under state law, schools still must investigate and take action under both those circumstances.

In other high-profile cases this summer, schools have been accused of being less responsive.

In May, 12-year-old Jackson Isenberg of Orford took his own life after what his mother described as repeated bullying that was ignored by the school.

Several days later, 11-year-old Delanie Marcotte stood before the Timberlane Regional School Board in Plaistow and described how classmates had threatened to shoot her with an AK-47 and bury her in her backyard. School officials promised to look into it.

With evidence that the system is missing much of what happens between students, State Board of Education Chairman Andrew Cline said it is incumbent on parents to act as relentless advocates for their children.

Students may be too afraid to tell anyone that they're being bullied, so parents have to. And if a school isn't handling the situation appropriately, parents must be persistent and willing to appeal decisions.

"There seems to be a big disconnect between what the kids say is going on and what the schools are reporting," he said. "And I find that concerning, as a parent."

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