Thirteen-year-old Sophia Modica told the State Board of Education Wednesday that she has been bullied for several years at her middle school in Woodbury and complained about it but has gotten no help.
“In the past few years, I have been told to kill myself hundreds of times,” Sophia told the board. “There were days last year in which I heard that statement in every single class I entered. I was called names, told I was stupid.”
She said she confided in guidance counselors, administrators and teachers, and her parents filed a bullying report, but nothing changed.
Sophia was one of a small group of people from the Region 14 school district, which includes Woodbury and Bethlehem, who came to the state board Wednesday to say their reports of bullying went unheeded and in other cases, that children with special needs were not getting the services they need.
District leaders have disagreed with the complaints, saying they have followed proper procedures, working with the state Department of Education and local law enforcement to ensure student safety and providing appropriate services for students.
“We reject categorically the allegations that have been made against Region 14,” Superintendent Anna Cutaia said in a statement.
One parent, Marissa Van Galen, said her son was put into seclusion nearly every day, and sometimes several times a day, from the time he was 4 ½ and in a preschool class in the district until he was outplaced at 5 ½.
“He began to believe he was bad as a result of the way he was treated and started to measure his days by how many times he had been secluded,” Van Galen said.
She said she was told by a school administrator that the only alternative to putting her son in seclusion was to call 911 for help.
The speakers urged the board to investigate the district.
“The board has heard you,” Education Commissioner Dianna Wentzell told the parents after they had spoken, and asked the residents to meet with the department’s senior staff and lawyers to talk with them. “Certainly the concerns presented are something we need to look into,” she said.
Board Chairman Allan Taylor said he found the complaints “very disturbing.”
“The commissioner will follow up, the department will follow up and we’ll keep track of that,” Taylor said. “I can’t judge it at this point, but the commonality of what they were saying was striking.”
Cutaia, the Region 14 superintendent, said the district disagrees with complaints that they have not followed up on reports of bullying. She said that previously, upon hearing of parents’ concerns and disagreements with the district’s findings, Region 14 reached out to the state Department of Education for guidance.
“Related to those complaints, we have been transparent and worked extensively with the Connecticut State Department of Education regarding such investigations and reports,” Cutaia said in a statement. “The Connecticut State Department of Education did not find any wrongdoing or lack of follow-up on the part of Region 14.”
Cutaia said she is limited in what she can say because she must protect the privacy of students, but the district also disagrees with complaints that needs of special education students are not being met in Region 14.
With respect to putting students in seclusion or restraining them, she said, “We follow all the commands of the law.”
She added: “This is not new and when those parents have brought these concerns to us, we reflected on our process and procedures. We reached out to the state department to even ask them questions about our processes and procedures. I’m happy to talk to any parents or students who are experiencing difficulties in these areas, personally.”
Sophia’s mother, Allyson Modica, said after the meeting that school has continued to be “hell’ for her daughter. She said she complained last week to school officials that her daughter is continuing to be harassed.
“Kids like me are afraid to go to school,” Sophia Modica told the board. “They are anxious and alone. Try and imagine what it is like to try to learn in class while being told you would better off dead by your peers … I am asking you to please teach our [Board of Education] how to help students before one of them takes the advice of their bullies and ends their life.”
Van Galen told the board that the situation for her son has been so devastating that the family has decided to move to another town.
“His banishment to a special school [was] the result of a region who is not doing what is best for children,” she said.