Fat. Gay. Or just different from the crowd. These are the reasons children are being bullied -- sometimes to death -- in America's schools, with at least 14 students committing suicide in the past year alone.
Intensified by the inescapable reach of the Internet, bullying has spun out of control. It allegedly triggered the suicides of Rutgers University freshman Tyler Clementi and Massachusetts high school student Phoebe Prince, two stories that rocketed the bullying epidemic into the national spotlight. An epidemic that causes 160,000 children a day to stay home from school because they are afraid of being bullied, according to the U.S. Department of Education.
ABC News' "20/20" anchor and Chief Law and Justice Correspondent Chris Cuomo spoke with some of the shattered families who are trying to figure out why more wasn't done to save their children and asked experts how to stop this unsettling trend.
Watch "Bullied to Death" on a special two-hour edition of "20/20" Friday at 9/8c
On October 17th, 2009, 17-year-old Tyler Long had had enough. After years of alleged bullying at the hands of classmates in his Murray County, Ga., school system, Tyler had gone from a fun-loving child to what his parents say was just a shell of the boy they once knew.
"They took his pride from him," said his father, David Long. "He was a hollow person."
Tyler had Asperger's Syndrome, a form of autism that his parents say left him with unique personality traits unpopular with his classmates. His mother, Tina Long, said Tyler was very rule oriented as a result of Asperger's and frequently reminded his classmates of the regulations they were violating.
"If someone was talking in class, I know that he would say, 'You know we're not supposed to be talking. That's the rule,'" Tina said.
His parents said that irritated his classmates, that Tyler was different to them and thus a target.
"They would take his things from him, spit in his food, call him 'gay, faggot'," Long said. "One day to the next, it was continuous harassment from the other kids in the classroom."
His parents said they complained to school authorities about the pattern of bullying early on, but no action was taken.
"'Boys will be boys'," was the response Long said he got from school officials. "'How can I stop every kid from saying things that shouldn't be said? What do you want me to do Mr. and Mrs. Long? I've done all I can.'"
CLICK HERE for information on what to do if you think your child is being bullied or is a bully
One morning, two months into his junior year of high school, Tyler Long changed out of his pajamas and into his favorite T-shirt and jeans. He strapped a belt around his neck and hanged himself from the top shelf in his bedroom closet.
"I stepped into the room and I found Tyler in the closet," his father recalled, his voice shaking with emotion. "I rushed over, picked Tyler up and tried to relieve pressure from his neck. I started screaming for (my wife). I couldn't get the belt off his neck. (Tyler's younger brother) brought me a knife and I cut the belt off his neck. We laid him down. We checked to see if he was alive. But it was too late."
Tyler's parents have filed a lawsuit against the school, saying officials ignored the bullying that tormented their son.
Surprisingly, rather than take action the school refused even to have such much as a moment of silence in Tyler's honor, his parents said.