The famed journalist Hunter S. Thompson had a thoughtful quote that reads, "When the going gets weird, the weird turn pro." While Thompson was the definition of weird and crazy during his time at the top of the communications totem pole in the 1960s and 1970s as a national columnist for Rolling Stone magazine, the idea of taking the bull by the horns and transforming a strange situation into something industrious was his game.
So when the Isaacs, a family from Lake Grove, were thrust into a damning state of affairs of perpetual bullying they pulled a Thompson and turned pro.
It wasn't like they had a choice. After years of issues mainly with their daughter Jamie, and eventually with their son Daniel, Ron and Anne did what was best and fought the system.
The end result is nearing and their transformation as a family that took the punches to a family that is now winning on the scorecard has been a vivid evolution of what can happen when you're determined to make a difference.
How it all began?
Jamie, now 14, was a clad second grader, anxious to learn and enjoy her day at Wenonah Elementary School. Crusty eyed and tired like most kids off to school on a loud and scruffy school bus, Jamie had more to worry about than painful seats and clammy windows; the backpacks coming to a screeching skid on her face for starters.
"By the time Jamie got [to school], she would have a bruise across her face or a scrape or cut on her chin from falling in the aisle," said Anne, surrounded by her family in the kitchen of their home.
Depending upon how bad her bruises were on a given day, Jamie would either go to the bathroom to clean up or the nurse's office. Either way, she was forced to start her day on the wrong foot.
Then came the pencils. Sharpened pencil points were thrust into her arm. Eventually other girls would hiss at Jamie in the hallway.
By third grade – 8 year olds then– a team of girls was recruited, the Isaacs said.
"They told Jamie, 'if we don't hurt you, [the main bully] was going to hurt us," Anne said.
From the constant mental pressures of dealing with her bullying problem, Jamie's scholastic aptitude began to drop. She grew increasingly frustrated with math and spelling to the point where Ron and Anne hired a tutor at the Smithtown Library
Anne, standing most of the time around the movable island in their kitchen, grew increasingly strong-toned when going through Jamie's elementary years, describing the pain.
"Fourth grade," she said. "They're around her at lunch. She's running to the bathroom because she's sick. They're slamming their hands on the table, making her nervous, saying things in recess."
This is when the Isaacs enlisted a school janitor to look after Jamie, giving him food from the deli they owned as payment for his backup in certain situations.
"It was crazy what we had to do to get her protected," Anne said.
Daniel, 12 today, and in third grade at the time, had his own issues. On the lunch line playing a handheld video game, another student came over and kicked his already injured leg.
In Jamie's fifth grade year the death threats started. In Jamie's words, the core group of bullies, exhausted of ways to make her day miserable, recruited an older girl to inflict more damage.
"She caused a lot of problems," said Jamie, who listened intently, toying with her phone as her parents hashed out the previous five years worth of sorrow.
Then the phone calls began. Four girls called the Isaacs' home and said, "they were going to kill the rat," Jamie said, "because I went and told the principal what they were doing to me."
"Why are you a rat?" they asked. "Why'd you tell on us? We're your friends. Why would you do that to us? You're the rat and we're going to kill the rat."
It's not your normal elementary schoolgirl chatter.
Anne picked up the phone and eventually spoke to some of the parents, to which the Isaacs were told, "to f--- ourselves and that we were rich Jews and we should stop flaunting our money," Anne said.
The Isaacs notified school officials at Wenonah and Suffolk Police. Eventually the school told the police that Jamie was in therapy and the Isaacs were not happy with the results.
"They weren't allowed to say that Jamie was in therapy because that's a violation of my daughter's rights," Anne said. "It was a bullying program, where she was learning how to mentally deal with this."
The main culprit's parents were called into the school, as were the bullies, and the next day more anguish was stirred in the pot for Jamie as her classmates began calling her Dr. Phil. Other names were thrown around depending on what she was wearing or if different situations came into play, but while sticks and stones hurt, words were also painful for Jamie.
Anne and Ron felt the heat when Wenonah declared Ron a security risk when Jamie was in sixth grade. Ron said at one point there were eight security guards from the district preventing him from parking.
"I'm handicapped," he said.
The school didn't feel his handicap permit was valid, so an administrator reached into his car, he said, took the permit and had it verified with the Town of Brookhaven.
"I called the police, my wife called the superintendent's office," he said.
This was at the same point in time when the Isaacs filed a notice of claim against the Sachem Central School District, naming an administrator from Wenonah Elementary School in the paperwork.
"[The administrator] would walk over to my car and stand up next to the window, so I couldn't get out of my car," he said. "If I did park my car, they'd close the gate and lock it so I couldn't get out of the parking lot."
While dealing with bullying became an everyday occurrence for the Isaacs, other hurdles were being put up randomly for the family: Ron developed Bell's Palsy, Anne's father died and she gave away her family's deli in Oyster Bay.
"It was like a full-time job taking care of all this," Anne said. "I couldn't take it anymore."
In 2008 an odd incident happened when the same Wenonah administrator was said to have grabbed Daniel and tossed Lindsey, the youngest Isaac child, into the bus lane, the Isaacs said.
In her final year attending a Sachem school, Jamie went to Samoset Middle School in Lake Ronkonkoma. There, she was subjected to people breaking into her locker, students destroying projects in class and water being poured into her book bag. After a conflict with a teacher, who singled Jamie out in front of her class, she dropped the course and was forced to spend time as a library assistant.
Daniel, bigger than the normal 12-year-old and meant to play football with his size, was involved in a suspension in January 2010 for an out-of-school incident. The kicker, according to the Isaacs, is that they were previously told out-of-school issues are not punishable with school penalties. The entire ordeal started when Daniel heard someone was going to "shank" him with a knife, he said. Nothing serious happened, but the Isaacs feel the threat was real. He was switched from Samoset to Sequoya Middle School in Holtsville shortly after.
It was a never-ending saga for the Isaacs, who finally moved Jamie to a private school for the fall of 2009.
The issues at hand
With the school bus incidents that started this ordeal of bullying nearly a decade ago, the school district told the Isaacs that, "what happens on the bus, is the bus company's problem," Ron said.
As for Daniel being kicked in the leg on the lunch line, the Isaacs said they were never notified of the incident by the school.
"His leg was infected," Anne said. "He lost a year of football and almost wound up in a wheelchair."
There are countless instances where the Isaacs spent time detailing regarding their children and bullying, unfortunately since the school district cannot talk about any student's background or personal history, it becomes a story of he-said, she-said.
"When it's time for court, no one will believe us," said Ron, sitting next to Jamie at the table. "That's why I recorded every conversation from [a certain point with school officials]."
The Isaacs have filed multiple claims against Sachem, including one with Daniel as the claimant, stating the district failed to provide a safe environment and to prevent ongoing harassment and with Jamie as the claimant, stating the district failed to take action to protect her from bullying.
The only communication Sachem could provide regarding the Isaacs was through a statement from its public relations firm, Zimmerman/Edelson: "The Sachem Central School District has a zero tolerance policy on bullying. The District implements many programs each school year to teach anti-bullying and tolerance in the elementary, middle and high school levels. Anti-bullying is addressed in each grade through an array of programs including lectures, guest speakers, workshops, after school programs and curriculum.
When an alleged incident is brought to the administration's attention, an investigation is launched immediately. Building administrators, counselors, social workers and teachers join together to resolve any bullying issues within our school community. Appropriate disciplinary action is taken against any student who is involved in a bullying incident. The District cannot comment on individual cases due to student privacy laws and ongoing litigation."
The district did forward a list of bullying programs that exist for students (it's attached in the photo box to the right).
There was a time when the Isaacs considered selling their house and had the market not been fluctuating thanks to a shoddy economy, they may have left Sachem for good. Instead, they fought some battles and stuck it out.
Jamie is currently enrolled at The Knox School, a private institution founded in 1904 and tucked away off Long Beach Road in St. James. She can ride horses and takes part in many school activities from the international club to the year book staff.
"I'm surprised how quickly I became comfortable," she said, lighting up considerably when talking about her new surroundings. "It's a totally different atmosphere."
More importantly the Isaacs have begun a public policy quest to bring a new law on the table of the Suffolk County Legislature that would penalize schools and educational professionals for not properly handling bullying.
Struck by previous cyberbullying legislation developed by Suffolk County Legis. Jon Cooper, the Isaacs contacted him with a draft of their own bill.
"It's the first law of its kind that will hold school officials personally liable," Ron said. "It's extremely important that the schools know the issues. There are kids that would have taken their life for what my daughter has been through."
"This is a noble thing," said Joakim Lartey, the Director of Training for the New York Center for School Safety, who listened to the Isaacs throughout the course of six years in a Good Samaritan type role. "The best we can do is reduce it, counsel and take care of those affected by it, and then counsel and hold bullies responsible for their actions. Unfortunately, bullying appears to be part of human nature."
Cooper said he has heard from dozens of families with stories similar to the Isaacs after news was released of their proposed legislation at a general session Legislature meeting in May.
"I think that a majority of teachers and school officials do treat bullying efficiently and work hard to stop bullying," he said. "Clearly there are instances where not enough is being done by teachers, principals and other school administrators. Hopefully they are the minority."
Not everyone agrees with Cooper – especially members of the School Administrators Association of New York State (SAANYS). The bill would call for administrators to pay fines for their false actions, however, under New York State law the school district has to pay the fine for the administrator.
"It's problematic," Cooper said. "We're looking into it."
"There are lots of problems with it," added Kevin Casey, Executive Director of the SAANYS. "Its definition of bullying is overly broad. The bullying is a real issue. We clearly understand that and do not justify anyone willfully ignoring it. It picks a position to assign blame. It does nothing to educate the bully, nothing to educate the victim."
Casey argues the bill is too narrowly focused and there are already laws in place for dealing with people that are engaged in negligence or dereliction of duty.
"People don't go into education if they don't care about kids and learning," Casey said. "You have to have a genuine concern for the kids. That's not to say occasionally people don't screw up. It's a presumption of guilt. Statements of legislative intent are insulting to administrators. This is not a thoroughly thought out piece of proposed legislation. He took a broad brush and insulted educational professionals throughout Suffolk County and Long Island."
He added that someone from his organization would be speaking on behalf of administrators at future Suffolk County Legislature meetings where the legislation is discussed.
Casey said there has been chatter at the state level where state Sen. Steve Saland and others intend to give schools the tools to reduce bullying, increase penalties for hazing and establish a statewide registry for reporting bullying of all kinds. New York is one of only seven states that does not have specific school bullying laws. Bully Police, a watchdog advocate for bullied children, currently gives New York an "F," for its lack of statewide laws.
"Every student is entitled to a safe and bully-free learning environment. While schoolyard bullying is not a new phenomenon, technology has heightened the unrelenting and egregious acts of bullying and cyberbullying," Saland said in a statement. "This bill will protect all students from the devastating and irreversible effects of bullying and provide our teachers and schools every tool possible to combat the pervasive and vicious cycle of bullying."
The sad news is the Isaacs are not the last family to deal with multiple bullying threats. West Islip's Alexis Pilkington is not going to be the last girl in the world to kill herself because of bullying. Lartey is right in staying bullying is human nature, but it's also human nature to amend instances of struggle in children's lives. Live and learn and bullying can be reduced.
*As requested by the Isaacs family and the Sachem Central School District, certain names of individuals from this story have been left out. The family is currently in litigation with the Sachem Central School District and certain details could not be mentioned in writing.