Bullied to Death in America's Schools

Photo: Bullied to Death: Some Schools Outlaw Aggression, Others Accept Kids Being Kids
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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.

VIDEO: Teens and parents tell of relentless, deadly bullying at school.
Bullied To Death: Victims' Stories

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

Suicide of Bullied Teen Mocked by Classmates

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.

Perhaps even more shocking was the revelation that Tyler's death was openly mocked in school by the bullies and other classmates, according to Lee Hirsch, a documentary filmmaker who has spent the last year examining bullying in America.

"Other students, including some of the bullies, wore nooses around their necks after they learned of his death, to school, and got away with it," said Hirsch.

ABC News asked school authorities for an interview but they declined.

"We prefer to do our talking in court," an attorney for the Murray County School District, who would not give his name, told a producer from 20/20 when approached outside a hearing on the case.

Victims of bullying like the Longs who find no relief on a local level have few options at the federal level either, said Kevin Jennings, the U.S. Department of Education's Safe School Czar.

"When it's harassment based on sex or race or ability, we can intervene. But on other issues, there actually is no national policy or no national law," said Jennings.

Rampant as bullying is in American schools, at least one school is specifically designed to give safe haven to victims of bullying and to outlaw the cycle of aggression. It's the Alliance School, a public charter school for about 180 middle and high school students in Milwaukee's inner city.

School Requirement: Respect for Differences Among Classmates

At Alliance, respect for individual differences is part of the culture and required behavior. Teachers are trained to intervene immediately in conflicts. What is accepted at other schools, such as "kids being kids," is not tolerated at Alliance.

"I didn't feel like I belonged anywhere," said Emiliano Luno, 14, who came to Alliance after he was bullied so intensely at his previous school for being gay that he was on the verge of dropping out of school.

"Teachers had no understanding whatsoever. All they would do is yell at you and I dreaded every single day," Emiliano said.

Now, at Alliance, when he walks into a classroom with pink hair, fellow students say, "Wow, you look great."

Alliance boasts high attendance, few drop-outs and less of the drama associated with adolescence.

"It doesn't matter who you are, or how you look, or what you believe," said Tina Owen, the Alliance School's lead teacher and founder. "It's about getting a great education and learning to work with all sorts of people who are very different from yourself."

However simply separating bullied students from the bullies may not be the solution, according to Jennings.He says equipping teachers in all schools with the tools to combat and stop bullying in it's tracks before it gets too out of control is badly needed.

"Most of them don't know what to do and a lot of them get paralyzed. They don't know what to say. They're afraid if they do intervene, there's gonna be angry parents at the school and that the principal's not gonna support them," Jennings said about teachers.

For the Long family October 16th will mark the last time they saw Tyler alive. Although it may be too late for their son they hope by sharing his story, and their pain, it may inspire others to bring about real change in our nation's schools that may save another child.

"I feel Tyler everyday. There's not a day that goes by that I don't feel him. It hurts. But until something is done, I'm sure other parents will go though the same thing. It needs to change," David Long said.

CLICK HERE for information on what to do if you think your child is being bullied or is a bully

Anyone with information about the bullying experienced by Tyler Long is asked to contact his parents by email at bullyinginmurraycountyschools@hotmail.com or by phone at 706-847-1452.

"The Bully Project" is an independent documentary that highlights kids and families across the United States through the school year as they deal with bullying. Their website offers advice on how to get help if you're a victim of bullying and how to donate to the project. Click here to learn more about "The Bully Project."

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