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I-Team: Experts say school bullying cases are underreported

I-Team: Arlington failed to meet some state bullying regulations
I-Team: Arlington failed to meet some state bullying regulations 03:54

ARLINGTON - "They started harassing my daughter on social media, on her Tik Tok," said Angelica Godinho. She was remembering the bullying that began at the start of her daughter's fourth grade year at Thompson Elementary in Arlington.

"I was scared to go back," said the girl who's now 10 years old. In fact, she was so scared, she simply stopped going to school.

"One of the students was writing a story," said her mom, remembering one incident. "She saw that it had her name in it. So (she) asked to read the story, and they had said in the story when, where, and how they were going to kill her," she said. That's when Godinho went to police, unsatisfied with the school's response.

The WBZ I-Team obtained a state report showing officials with the Massachusetts Department of Elementary and Secondary Education found Arlington failed to meet some of the state's regulations. The report says administrators didn't investigate every time the family reported the girl had been bullied, and that the district's bullying plan was outdated.

"The pain that she went through. I couldn't take it away. It was like I was powerless," said Godinho through tears.

When the I-Team analyzed the data, we found attempts to measure the problem have fallen short. A recent federal survey by the National Center for Education Statistics showed one in five students said they were bullied, most of them girls. The report shows the problem is the worst in the Northeast. But the I-Team found Massachusetts statistics mysteriously do not show that. The same year, less than 1% of the student population was disciplined for bullying.

"All we know is that the official statistics are not going to be the most accurate ones," said Dr. Elizabeth Englander, who heads the Massachusetts Aggression Reduction Center at Bridgewater State University. She said most children never speak up. "Most cases of bullying are never detected by adults. They never know they're happening." She said teaching people how to spot the signs is the only way to contain bullying.

In Massachusetts, most reported incidents happened in seventh grade, which lines up with the story another student shared with the I-Team. "It started in seventh grade, there was like rumors about me," said the girl from Arlington, who spoke on the condition of anonymity. "So then high school, the same thing happened but it became more racial," she said.

Her mother remembers being heartbroken. "My daughter comes home and tells me that there's a girl, and this is how it all kind of started, the girl kept using the N word repeatedly, repeatedly," she said.

Dr. Englander said the best strategy is to focus on prevention, because once bullying starts, it can be challenging to stop it. "If we can help schools train their faculty, train their administrators, train their counseling staff."

In the case of Godinho's daughter, there is a happy ending. She is currently well-adjusted after transferring to a different school.

But the older teen who also shared her story with the I-Team, is still struggling. She's now in a partial hospitalization program, as state education officials investigate whether the school has handled her case appropriately. "There are many kids that are dealing with this, and some of them are probably living in silence," said her mother

Arlington's school superintendent, Dr. Elizabeth Homan, sent a statement saying she can't comment on the girls' specific cases. "We put the highest priority on student safety and ensuring that all of our students have a positive school experience," she said. Members of the Arlington School Board did not respond to the I-Team's questions about how the district handles bullying.   

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