ROYAL OAK, Mich. (FOX 2) -
Ana Ladginski wants to sit back one day and be proud of the work she did on her high school yearbook. The Royal Oak teen had recently taken up photography, a hobby she has channeled much of her current-day interests into.
But when she does reflect on the journey she traveled in school, it'll come with more than just happy memories. The junior's joy today blossomed from a troubling part of her life when she became the target of persistent bullying from a classmate.
"It weighs on you a lot," she said. "You never really think, not only is it not going to happen, but how it impacts you, your life, your loved ones."
The bullying happened online, starting with a group chat where images with belittling captions were posted. She wouldn't have known about them because they were quickly deleted, but not before her friends say and told her.
Screenshots of her social media and degrading phrases talking about her appearance felt like "a million bricks being piled" on top of her.
The torment lasted for months.
"I was always a target," she said. "I just felt really unsafe a lot of the times at school, and really uncomfortable."
"This was a young man who targeted her, who stalked her, who, even when he was blocked navigated through friends of friends it was always her," said her mom Monica Tienda. "It was creepy and it was treated as not much."
Ladginski had tried handling it herself. She brought evidence to the school in January. Her parents also sent emails and filed a police report. Even with a timeline presented to the proper channels, the bullying didn't stop.
Instead, those targeting the teen posted a caption saying "we won" after that.
Nine days passed before the family heard back from the school. Tienda said they wouldn't divulge any information about the boy or consequences he may have received. The district also said that Ladginski and her bully would need to co-exist, though neither would share classes nor lunch.
That wasn't a satisfying answer for her mother, who then went to the school board.
"Ana has been missing school more and more. She's had major grade swings and also suffers headaches and nightmares," said she said during a school board meeting.
School districts are required by law to report both instances of bullying and resolutions to conflict involving bullying. Dubbed Matt's Law, it passed in 2011 after being signed by former Gov. Rick Snyder.
"We know it has saved lives," said Kevin Epling, father to Matt and the main force behind the bill. "There has to be a procedure looking into instances of bullying and what their solutions or outcomes are."
But in the years since its passage, Epling says schools have stopped abiding by the law. Parents have told him that schools don't adhere to the rules. To him, it feels like progress made by the legislation has slipped away and they're back to square one.
"There are too many schools that are not following Matt's law," said Attorney Todd Flood, who both advised Ladginski's family and advocates for families in bullying cases. During his time overseeing cases, Flood says districts don't have designated people in place.
He also says many don't have an investigation policy either.
"Every student needs to have the opportunity times 10 to have the right education," he said. "We don’t afford the right education to them with having bad policies put in place or schools trying to cover up bullying taking place."
According to state data, in 2021 close to 270 school districts or charter schools reported zero bullying incidents. In 2020, it was close to 460.
Epling has a hard time believing a district can go through an entire school year without any reported incidents.
"I’m a little baffled as to how they got zero," he said.
That includes Royal Oak, which enrolls 5,200 students across nine buildings. They also reported zero bullying incidents in 2021 and 2020.
"It would be chimerical to believe that there's zero, right? You're supposed to publish that. Why don’t they do that? Because they want to be ranked at a certain level. They want to make sure 'there’s no bullying here, we want to cover this up'," said Flood.
Randy Speck says schools deserve more grace.
As the former superintendent of Madison Heights schools and current learning services director for charter schools in Southfield, he says teachers and administrators must wade through numerous factors when approaching conflict between students.
"I don’t know of administrator or staff member on the planet that doesn’t want to have a safe school. We all want safe schools," he said.
He added "I think schools often probably wrestle with ‘are we consistently enforcing our anti-bullying policies. So are we doing what our policy says we’re supposed to be doing?’"
Speck believes his schools' numbers are accurate.
Among the schools he works with is Caniff Liberty Academy in Hamtramck, which enrolls students 5th grade and below. In 2021, the charter school disclosed three incidents in 2020 and zero in 2021. Last year, it reported four cases.
"We started working with a social emotional learning program where they can come up with their own anti-bullying campaign,"
Dr. Jun Hong at Wayne State University who studies bullying policies believes that most districts are abiding by the rules. If a district doesn't report accurate numbers, he says it could be tied to students not reporting the cases themselves.
"Many of the students often underreport when they're asked if they're being bullied," said Hong. "I think for the most part, most school districts if not all - they are honest about what students report."
He also said Matt's Law could be bolstered to include protections for LGBTQ groups and those with a disability. Language barriers, challenging home environments, and other stresses from schools also contribute to the difficulty with tracking and resolving the cases.
But for the victims of bullying like Ladginski, they too have to give themselves leniency.
"The biggest thing I've learned is I have to give myself grace," she said.