A Tormenting Problem: An Exploration of New-Age Bullying

Lexi felt excited, and a little bit worried, as she headed off to high school last September. She knew it would take some getting used to — the unfamiliar schedule and the sprawling building, the blur of strange faces passing in the hallways.

She had some idea what to expect at the school in one of the affluent suburbs west of Boston. She knew it was respected for its academics. But she also knew that in its social culture, looks mattered. So the 14-year-old rose early, and chose her clothes carefully. She couldn’t control much about the days ahead. But she could make sure that she looked right, that her hair was sleek and straight, that she fit in.

The first day of school, and the jitters that came with it, passed. But then, after school on the second or third day, a friend sent a text to Lexi’s cellphone: “Go online.’’

Lexi opened her laptop, signed on to Facebook and felt herself flush with humiliation. On the screen were pictures a girlfriend had taken a few months before while horsing around, of Lexi making faces at the camera. The pictures had been a joke between friends. But now, posted online by a boy she hardly knew, they were an invitation for ridicule.

“You look like a rat that has been put on crack . . . in other words ugly as balls,’’ read one of the long string of comments that had appeared below the pictures.

“hahahaha,’’ wrote another.

Anger and shame washed over her as she read. The image Lexi had tried to cultivate for herself — of the pretty, polished, self-confident girl — suddenly felt false and foolish. And her hopes of winning friends turned to dread.

Lexi’s fears soon came true. In the months that followed, according to her account, backed up by others, students taunted her at school. Boys called her “slut’’ and “whore,’’ girls snickered. Groups of students picked on her, surrounding her on the stairs or pushing her in the cafeteria. She received threatening calls on her cellphone.

“I knew from the beginning,’’ Lexi says now. “I knew it was basically everyone against me.’’

Lexi would suffer in many ways during her first year of high school, which ended Friday. Her grades plunged. She withdrew socially and coped with painful self-doubt. Unlike 15-year-old Phoebe Prince, the South Hadley High School student whose suicide in January triggered a criminal investigation, public soul-searching, and a new antibullying law in Massachusetts, Lexi’s ordeal did not end in death or attract widespread attention. But in many ways, her case illustrates forms of bullying that are far more common, and is more instructive of the difficulties that school administrators across the state are likely to face this fall as they try to comply with Massachusetts’ new antibullying law.

Under the law, all schools must develop procedures for dealing with bullies. Teachers must report bullying, parents must be informed of it, and principals must investigate. Yet, most all of those things happened in Lexi’s case and still the bullying continued, even escalated.

Indeed, what happened to Lexi over the course of those months, and the seeming ineffectiveness of the school’s responses, underscores the human complexity of problems lumped under the heading of bullying. They include subtleties not easily addressed by regulation — the difficulty of distinguishing routine conflicts from more destructive, ongoing harassment; the challenge of monitoring and controlling antagonism expressed over the Internet; and the tricky landscape of adolescent relationships.

To tell her story, the Globe approached Lexi and her grandmother, who is her legal guardian, after they and several dozen other families responded to a Globe request posted on Boston.com seeking students with stories about bullying. The girl and her grandmother say they were willing to cooperate in hopes of raising awareness and helping others, and because of their frustration with the school’s responses to Lexi’s situation. Each agreed to speak on the record, using their full name. But out of consideration for her age, her situation, and her privacy, now and in the years ahead, the Globe elected to withhold Lexi’s last name and the name of the school where she is a student.

To corroborate their account, Lexi’s grandmother provided the Globe with some 50 pages of e-mail correspondence with school officials about Lexi’s experiences and the school’s involvement with her case. A parent of a student at the school who witnessed much of the bullying also confirmed many parts of Lexi’s story.

School administrators say they dispute aspects of Lexi’s account. But they declined to discuss what those aspects are or any specifics of her case. They said speaking publicly would not be in the girl’s best interest, despite the offer of a waiver from Lexi and her grandmother granting them permission to talk freely.

Speaking generally about bullying, school officials said they are often confounded in trying to craft effective responses because in conflicts between students, it is common for both parties to consider themselves victims.

Textbook case

Lexi says that in her case, there was a backstory to the drama that enveloped her when school started.

Over the summer, she had decided to part ways with a girl she had known since grade school. They had shared sleepovers, secrets, and favorite movies. It was the same girl who had snapped the silly pictures that ended up on Facebook. Lexi says she ultimately decided her friend had become a negative influence.

Lexi believes that when school started, her spurned friend set out to punish her.

The Globe tried to contact the girl several times through her parents, who did not respond to phone calls requesting an interview or a note left at their home. Lexi doesn’t know if her theory is true. If it is, what she described is a textbook case of bullying by girls, who frequently target former friends, use embarrassing photos, and criticize victims’ looks, according to a study this year by the Massachusetts Aggression Reduction Center, a bullying research and education project at Bridgewater State College.

All Lexi knew was that it hurt. The mockery on Facebook had set off a torrent of insults at school. She says that both boys and girls — some students she knew and others who were strangers — called her ugly, annoying, a slut. These, along with the stream of hurtful online comments, left her feeling threatened at school, Lexi says.

It was tormenting for a girl who had wanted only to blend in, something that had never felt easy. She lived with her grandmother, unlike most other kids she knew. They rented a modest duplex, smaller than most homes in their neighborhood.

Now she had been singled out in a new way.

At school, she says, she wore a kind of armor. She kept her head high, her eyes cold.

At night in her room, though, it was harder to fight off the frustration and helplessness that besieged her. With Facebook glowing on her laptop, she would see taunting posts from classmates. Sometimes, she would fire off angry replies. She imagined classmates writing online messages about her, and she would feel torn — wanting to click on their pages to see what people were saying, but dreading what she might find.

Confrontation at school

Watching from the sidelines, Lexi’s grandmother was becoming deeply worried.

Evelyn is 65, outspoken, tough, and practical. She once owned her own business. When Lexi was younger, she had taken legal custody of the girl from her mother, Evelyn’s daughter, out of concern for the girl’s welfare and safety. She has kept close tabs on her, especially as the girl makes her way through adolescence. Over the summer, Evelyn had applauded her granddaughter’s decision to part ways with her childhood friend. To encourage Lexi to expand her horizons and find new friends, she had insisted she go to a sleepover camp. When Lexi thrived there, Evelyn had been thrilled and proud.

She wasn’t about to sit and watch her granddaughter suffer at school. So, almost as soon as the bullying started, she began calling and e-mailing school officials, sometimes daily, to report what Lexi had told her and to demand that they take action.

“This harassment is dangerous and needs to stop immediately,’’ she wrote in an e-mail to the school a week into the year, according to correspondence she provided the Globe.

But the tensions only seemed to escalate. On Monday, Sept. 14th, the start of the third week of school, Lexi says five boys surrounded her and her friend on a staircase. The boys held up a cellphone that displayed the hated pictures. They called her a bitch, said Lexi and a parent of a girl who was present. Lexi told them to stop. She threw a cup of iced coffee at them. She was given a detention, but her irate grandmother refused to let her serve it.

She was not the only student feeling victimized. One of Lexi’s close friends, who had stuck by her as others at the school turned against her, was enduring the same insults. Evelyn and the other girl’s mother kept in touch, comparing notes and sharing their frustration.

At school the day after the episode on the stairs, a boy called Lexi and two friends “the three muska-whores,’’ Lexi and the friend’s mother said. The school ordered the boy to serve two sessions of detention, according to Lexi’s friend’s mother, who spoke to the Globe on the condition of anonymity to protect her daughter from further harassment. She said an administrator informed her of the discipline.

The next day, Lexi’s friend’s mother told the school she planned to call police. “I encourage you to go to the police,’’ came the school’s reply, according to a copy of the e-mail she provided.

In a science class that Friday, a group of girls including Lexi’s former friend laughed at a question Lexi asked the teacher. “I don’t think it’s funny,’’ Lexi snapped back.

After class, as Lexi and her friend started down a crowded staircase, one of the girls from the class pushed a boy into them, Lexi and the friend’s mother said. Lexi lost her balance and grabbed a railing to stop her fall. Her friend lurched forward into some other students.

Mediation sessions

Her grandmother soon saw Lexi losing sleep and falling behind on her schoolwork. The teenager withdrew, retreating to her room. She didn’t want to talk about what was going on.

“I wasn’t even paying attention to classes,’’ Lexi says. “I felt like I always had to be on the lookout.’’

Meanwhile, Lexi’s friend’s mother described weeks of daily taunting, boys calling Lexi and her daughter “whore’’ and “slut.’’ Their conduct went largely unchecked, she said, and amounted, in her view, to sexual harassment.

“What kind of message are we giving these young women that they are to tolerate such harassment?’’ she wrote in one e-mail to the school.

Lexi’s friend started dreading school, and pleaded with her mother to let her stay home.

For Lexi, the string of small indignities continued. A boy in her history class ordered her to change seats, telling her he didn’t like looking at the back of her head. Lexi reported the incident, and he was punished with two sessions of detention, according to an e-mail from an administrator. On the bus home the same day, another boy talked loudly about “snitches,’’ making sure Lexi could hear.

That afternoon, her grandmother said, Lexi cried and fell asleep at 6 p.m.

The girl who had pushed Lexi on the stairs had been suspended. School officials then proposed another step, a supervised mediation session where the two could work out their differences. In the Sept. 23 meeting, Lexi says, the girl told her that she had been angry because she had been told that Lexi had said mean things about her.

Lexi told her it was a lie, and she left the mediation feeling better.

A second mediation, between Lexi and her former friend, the one she believed had tried to punish her, was less successful. “I was yelling at her, saying, ‘Why are you doing this?’, and she was just sitting there,’’ Lexi recalls. “I said, this is going nowhere, and I left.’’

By the end of September, Lexi’s friend’s mother had had enough. Because of the bullying, and the school’s failure to stop it, she says, she moved her family to another school district.

“I was not only angry, but desperate,’’ she says. “It was like a virus, and I think they couldn’t control it.’’

Victim, bully, or both?

The high school, it seems clear, was also struggling.

In an interview, the principal said the school addresses every report of bullying or harassment, with tactics ranging from conversations with students and parents to detentions, suspensions, and requests for police intervention.

“We take it on every single time,’’ he said.

It is part of a school philosophy that is enshrined in the school’s discipline code. The school “prides itself on maintaining an atmosphere [where] respect and thoughtful, civil behavior is the norm,’’ states the first sentence. The code bans harassment, online and in person, and goes further to condemn name-calling and taunting.

Last fall, as the demands for action from Lexi’s grandmother and her friend’s mother piled up in school administrators’ e-mail inboxes, the school wrestled with the conflicts, according to e-mails provided by both families. After receiving the first reports of problems, officials called in the handful of students Lexi and her friend had said were bothering them, and called their parents, steps required under school policy “before we can institute the punishment scenario,’’ according to an e-mail from an administrator.

Punishments followed, but not swiftly or consistently enough for the two families, who believe stronger action at the start might have stamped the problem out before it mushroomed.

As other students joined in the harassment, school officials sounded frustrated. “It would be very difficult to monitor or interfere with every student observed speaking with Lexi,’’ an administrator wrote to her grandmother in late September. “I have asked her to report harassing behavior/remarks.’’

It was not an unreasonable request. But it left Lexi feeling worried about being viewed a “snitch.’’

When she did report problems, she says school administrators “were always asking me what I could have done to prevent it. I would say, ‘Nothing,’ and they would say, ‘Well, there’s always something.’ It seemed like they were always trying to put it on me.’’

In an interview last month about bullying in general, school officials said the problem can be thorny, even with teacher training and an active peer mediation program, because adolescents’ friendships come and go from day to day, conflicts between students often go back years, and student bystanders typically don’t want to intervene when they see bullying.

“I can’t keep it from happening in the back seat of my car, with my two kids, and here we’ve got 1,600 students,’’ the principal said.

Frequently, school officials said, the same students play both roles, acting as bully and victim — but they, and their parents, only see themselves as victims.

“It’s much easier for kids to see how they’re hurt than how they hurt others,’’ said a school administrator who oversees violence prevention.

Lexi and her grandmother say that the girl did not always play the meek, defenseless victim. When antagonized, she sometimes lashed back, swearing at people who insulted her, or even pushing someone away from her. Her grandmother says she wanted the girl to defend herself.

Evelyn says no one from the school ever raised concerns with her that Lexi, herself, was at times a bully.

“Not once did I hear that from them,’’ she said.

‘Nobody believes me’

Evelyn didn’t think that things could get much worse.

Then, in November, came a phone call from the school: A girl who rode the school bus with Lexi had accused her of inappropriate conduct with a male student on the ride home.

Evelyn felt sick. Then she got angry.

There were no cameras on the bus, and the driver saw nothing, she says. She says she was told the boy denied it before he confessed. Lexi denied the accusation. Evelyn took her word, but the school did not. Administrators denied her appeal, and suspended her and the accused boy for two days.

To some students who had harassed her, the punishment looked like confirmation of their slurs, and as the story spread, it stoked the fires again.

One day, after school, Lexi climbed into her grandmother’s car and threw back her head in defeat. “Nobody believes me,’’ Evelyn remembers her saying.

A week after her suspension, Lexi was in the cafeteria eating lunch with another girl, when a group of students approached. They insulted her, she says. She told them to leave her alone and got up and tried to walk away.

An older boy pushed her so she stumbled into a table.

The moment is burned in her memory, she says. Tables full of students were watching.

“I don’t know how much more she can stand,’’ Evelyn wrote to school officials in an e-mail.

Some progress

Evelyn increasingly worried about her granddaughter’s state of mind. Every morning, she called to Lexi in her bedroom to make sure she was awake and felt waves of panic when the girl didn’t respond right away. Weeks after her suspension, Lexi’s report card came home with the first F’s of her life.

The girl’s therapist, at Evelyn’s request, summarized the impact on Lexi of the harassment at school: feelings of worthlessness and hopelessness; loss of motivation and interests; social withdrawal; difficulty concentrating due to emotional stress. “When people constantly put you down, it gets in your head,’’ Lexi says. “You always try to fix it, even though there’s nothing to fix. . . . They forget, but you’re still worrying about it.’’

Still, the 14-year-old persisted, and found fragile cause for optimism.

By late winter, the worst of the teasing seemed to be over. She made a few new friends, upperclassmen who assured her that things would get better. A tutor helped her pull her grade up in math, to an A-minus from an F. During February school vacation, she visited with friends from summer camp.

But the fallout continued. Earlier this year, after one of Lexi’s new friendships ended abruptly, her grandmother called the other girl’s mother to find out why. According to Evelyn, the woman said she was sorry, but she had to protect her daughter’s reputation.

Reflecting on everything that happened, Lexi described what feels to her like a coldness in her peers.

“It’s hard to explain,’’ she said one afternoon this spring, her feet in flip-flops pulled up in a kitchen chair. “I don’t feel like they think I’m a person.’’

Her grandmother thinks Lexi should start fresh in a new school in the fall. But Lexi, in spite of all she’s been through, isn’t sure.

She doesn’t think schools or laws can stop bullying. But she believes in something simpler: time, and patience.

She holds onto the advice one of her older friends gave her, that “nothing is forever.’’

“Everything goes away,’’ she says. “You think it won’t end, but it will.’’