SPRINGFIELD (Union) — Irina Spektor said she didn’t learn until the last school year was over that her third-grade daughter, Emma, was being bullied by other students in her class.

When the new school year started in September, her daughter's hopes that she could avoid her tormentors were dashed when she found out that the school was keeping students in the same classes and teachers as the previous year.

Spektor said on the advice of the girl’s doctors, she has kept her daughter home for almost two months.

“I was quite upset by the fact that she didn’t say anything to me when it was happening,” she said. “At the same time, I do understand why she did what she did. At some point she came for help from the teacher.”

Spektor said her daughter told her she didn’t want to tell her mom what had happened because she was afraid it would make things worse. She said her teacher told her that she was a “smart girl” and that she should “figure it out.”

She said Emma told her that it had started with just a few girls teasing her and calling her names, but that the issue grew over the course of the year. She said sometimes her daughter would be excluded from activities or have her school supplies taken so she couldn’t do her work.

“It was just little annoying things, but they were constant and they were relentless,” she said.

After the summer, she was looking forward to a fresh start and a new year. That all changed a few days before the school year was scheduled to start when they got a letter saying the class had been “looped.” In a loop, the entire class and the teacher move forward to the next grade together.

“When my daughter learned about that, she was absolutely mortified because this meant she was now going to be in the same class with the exact same people who bullied her for a year.”

Spektor said she reached out to school principal, Michael Plias, before the school year started and asked her to be moved into one of the four other fourth-grade classes.

“The principal said absolutely not. Class placement is final,” she said.

When the school year started, Emma went to school with the rest of the class and was placed at the same table with one of the four girls who had given her the most trouble last year, according to Spektor.

“We did this for a period of two weeks where she would be hysterical both the night before she had to go to school and also in the morning crying and asking me to not make her go,” she said.

Admitting that part of the problem with the class this year was what she described as “post-traumatic stress disorder,” she said Emma told her she was “listening and waiting for what was coming next.”

In addition to the psychological toll the bullying was taking on her daughter, Spektor said it was also affecting her physically. As a dancer, she said her daughter normally has a good posture and stood up tall. After a meeting with the principal she said the girl came out “just a shriveled little thing and she can’t even answer him.”

The school conducted an investigation, during which Spektor said they asked the students about things that had happened last year. She said it was unrealistic to expect 8- or 9-year-old girls to remember what had happened last year.

“To nobody’s surprise, nobody remembered anything,” she said. “The principal called me and said we concluded our investigation. We’re not saying that this did not occur. What we are saying is that this cannot be substantiated. As such, we don’t really see a reason for concern, so we’re done.”

She said the principal told her the fact that Emma had done well academically and the fact that she had not missed a day of school so far this year were among the reasons given for not pursuing the matter further. She said she told the principal the reason her schoolwork didn’t suffer is that she worked with her daughter at home, and the reason she didn’t miss school is that she told her she had to go.

“I can assure you that when she wakes up on Monday morning and throws the same fit as she has the past two weeks, I won’t force her,” she said she told the principal. “He thought I was kidding. That was Sept. 20, and that was the last time she attended school.”

Since her daughter last went to school, Spektor said she has seen both a therapist and her pediatrician. She said she brought a letter from the pediatrician and that the therapist attended one of the meetings with the principal. She said the letter said the symptoms her daughter are experiencing, including headaches and sleeplessness “are the direct result of her anxiety pertaining to her class placement.”

Spektor said she has also tried to work with schools Superintendent Michael Davino. She said emails sent to the principal were also sent to the superintendent, though getting a hold of him also proved difficult. She said it was not until she called the Union County Superintendent’s Office that she finally heard from the head of the local district.

When the superintendent did call back, she said he had the same message as the principal that class placement was final.

“He told me ‘Do you know how many requests like this I get every day? If I were to grant all of them this would be complete chaos,” she said. “I said I don’t know how many requests like this you get and I don’t particularly care. It’s your job to keep children safe. If you have a lot of requests pertaining to people not being safe and feeling bullied maybe your ... bullying program is not as great as you tell everybody it is.”

Davino posted a letter on the district’s website that while not directly naming Spektor addressed “much misinformation in the media regarding alleged HIB and Springfield’s actions." He said because of privacy he was limited in the amount of information he could share about “correcting the record and addressing the misconceptions some people may have as a result of these media reports.”

“However, in a general sense, we can offer that every instance of alleged HIB reported is promptly investigated,” he said in the letter.

The superintendent said all incidents of bullying reported this year were investigated, as were “incidents that allegedly occurred last school year, but were only reported this year.”

“Unfortunately, delay in reporting incidents or concerns of this nature can hamper our ability to promptly and thoroughly investigate; it can also delay implementation of effective strategies to address a situation.”

In his letter, Davino said that reports that the district was “ignoring certain requests made by medical providers,” that was “never the case.” Davino said when the district or administration is presented with information, it is reviewed by school employees as well as a “highly credentialed medical professional” who also consults with the student’s doctor.

“In other words, Springfield’s tendency has been to over-evaluate a given situation and allow those most qualified to obtain necessary information before making a determination,” he said in the letter. "While not reported by the news media recently, all of these steps have been taken in the case featured and are ongoing. We have been and are continuing to address that particular situation.”

Spektor said she was surprised she was having difficulty with what she considered to be an easily addressable concern.

“It is surreal because I’m not asking for terribly special accommodations,” she said. “I am not asking for a different teacher to be hired, I’m not asking to go out of district, I’m not asking to have the school pay for private school because somebody sneezed too loud and now she’s scarred for life."

Spektor said did not know what the next steps in the process would be but that her daughter would very much like to be back in school in a new classroom.

Spektor said she was grateful that her daughter was able to tell her what makes her uncomfortable. She also understands that if she does go back to the school she will see the same children who she say bullied her in the past. However, she said her daughter said as long as she is not in the same classroom for the duration of the day she will be OK.

Since her daughter’s story has been made public, Spektor said she has gotten a lot of positive support from people in the community as well as strangers who have seen their children be bullied as well.

Emails seeking comment from Davino and Plias were not returned. A call to the county superintendent was directed to the Department of Education, which did not return a phone call seeking comment.

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Contact reporter Adam Hochron at 609-359-5326 or Adam.Hochron@townsquaremedia.com

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