GRIFFITH | Marisa Simmons said she had a great group of friends as a seventh-grader at Griffith Middle School.
They were among the popular crowd; they walked to and from school together, were in the same classes and chatted on the phone.
But shortly before Christmas break in December 2009, her good friends began doing things that disturbed Simmons: Two of the four girls began cutting themselves, she said. Simmons said they would slit their wrists or cut themselves in other places. They told her they were having family issues at home and it made them feel better.
Simmons said she thought the two-week Christmas break would be good for her friends, hoping they would curtail the behavior, but it didn't stop.
Worried, Simmons told her mother about it one day after school. Ten minutes later, her mother called Griffith Middle School and relayed the conversation to the principal.
The next day, Simmons' friends were called into the office. When they returned to class, they told Simmons they immediately realized she was "the one" who told.
Soon after, the girls turned on Simmons, she said. Over the next few months, Simmons said she was attacked, physically assaulted, harassed and threatened with physical violence.
Simmons said her former friends spread rumors about her around school, calling her a whore and saying she was pregnant. She said they made nasty comments about her in the hallways, and comments were posted on MySpace and Facebook.
Her mother, Jennifer Simmons, said Marisa was stressed out. She said her daughter cried herself to sleep almost every night. Jennifer Simmons said she went to the school repeatedly, reporting the incidents to then-Principal Aron Borowiak and eventually to Griffith Public Schools Superintendent Peter Morikis. However, she said, nothing was done about it.
Morikis couldn't be reached for comment Friday.
In one police report, Jennifer Simmons said school officials advised her to "home school the girl or move her to a private school to resolve the matter."
Marisa Simmons said one of her former friends had an in-house suspension in connection with the incidents but was not disciplined any further. Eventually Marisa also talked about the incident to at least one teacher, a counselor, the dean and the principal.
Jennifer Simmons filed three police reports related to the incidents and how they were affecting her daughter. With tears running down her cheeks, Jennifer Simmons said she had a doctor's note asking the school to remove the other girls from her daughter's classes or that Marisa be allowed to leave earlier for her own safety, but no change was approved. She said she also tried to talk to the parents of the other girls but was not successful.
It all came to a head in mid-April 2010 when Marisa Simmons threatened to commit suicide and ran out of the house.
"I thought about cutting myself but I don't like pain," she said Friday, her eyes welling with tears. "Then I thought about jumping off a bridge."
Jennifer Simmons said Griffith police found the girl about a block away from home at a bridge near Wood Street. When the police brought her daughter home, Jennifer Simmons said she contacted the girl's doctor who recommended she be hospitalized; she was confined for a week.
Jennifer Simmons said her daughter missed more than two months of school. She had books and study materials at home but lacked a teacher's direction. Simmons said she'd be the first to say she is not a teacher, but she felt like she was almost forced to try to homeschool her daughter.
Marisa Simmons had the support of her family, including her grandmother, Kathy Doyle, who contacted the Indiana Department of Education, which had no way to resolve the local issue.
"I was at a loss," Jennifer Simmons said. "I had no idea what to do. They (school officials) had made her the problem, rather than treating her as the victim."
A fresh start
The following school year, Jennifer Simmons withdrew her daughter from Griffith Public Schools and enrolled her at St. Mary School in Griffith for eighth grade. She said the months her daughter missed in school hampered her progress, and she struggled during the year. Marisa now is a freshman at Bishop Noll Institute in Hammond and doing well.
"I've made many new friends now, friends who are really nice," Marisa said, adding they all know what happened to her as a seventh-grader.
"I wouldn't change what I did. I still would have told my mom about it," she said. "I don't know if they stopped cutting themselves. I hope they did. I heard they were in counseling. I haven't had any contact with any of them. A few times, one or two of them tried to friend me on Facebook, but I denied it."
Jennifer Simmons said her daughter still is in therapy. "She still ducks down in the car if we pass a school bus," she said.
In the aftermath of the incidents, Jennifer Simmons hired Crown Point attorney Walter Alvarez. Alvarez filed a civil suit Dec. 20 in Lake Superior Court against Griffith Public Schools and others connected with the school district. No court date has been set. A Griffith school official said some of the information went to an old address, and they have not received the notices.
Alvarez, who called Marisa Simmons brave, said he hopes that by telling her story, she will have an impact on parents and students and foster communication regarding school incidents to help prevent or curtail bullying.
On Friday as the family sat in Alvarez's office talking about its story, Jennifer Simmons often hugged her daughter or held her hand, and sometimes cried.
"I want to start some sort of organization to help kids so they don't go through what my daughter went through," she said. "She knows other kids who are in similar situations at Griffith. I'd never send her back. I'll work five jobs to pay for her education if I have to."