A Tormenting Problem: An Exploration of New-Age Bullying

BURLINGTON — In the associate principal’s office, a Burlington High School freshman wore an inscrutably blank face as the administrator spoke to him from behind his desk. The administrator, Mark Sullivan, an imposing man with a crew cut and an ex-athlete’s swagger, had summoned the boy to tell him a story.

The glasses of a student with special needs, Sullivan said, had been mysteriously disappearing from tabletops in a science class that both students attended, only to show up later in odd places around the classroom. It had upset the special needs student, who suspected he was being deliberately tormented.

Sullivan made no accusations. But he held up a blue booklet for the student to see, “Bullying 2010: Understanding and Implementing the New Legal Requirements,’’ and ticked off possible consequences for violating Massachusetts’ new antibullying law, including prison.

The student’s expression didn’t change.

“You think I’m kidding with you?’’ Sullivan said, recounting the exchange later for a reporter.

Sullivan’s chat apparently had an effect. The glasses stopped disappearing. But there was one thing the administrator did not do: fill out the state’s new “bullying prevention reporting form.’’ The forms, a creation of the new law, are recommended as a way to formalize how schools deal with cases of suspected bullying, encouraging a school investigation, a call to parents and other authorities, if necessary, and a lasting record of the incident. But Sullivan and other top staffers were fiercely divided over their worth, with many believing that such a strict process could well make some situations worse.

More pointedly, some of them said, the forms reflect a mistaken belief that the complex behavior that confronts them day in and day out can be reduced to simple check-boxes identifying targets and aggressors.

“I don’t feel the need to complete a form and put it in a folder,’’ Sullivan said early this fall. “Sometimes you fill it out and things get worse. It could explode in your face.’’

Burlington High, like all other schools across the state this fall, put Massachusetts’ new requirements in place amid a heightened public sensitivity to bullying. Starting in September, the Globe was granted wide access to observe as administrators and faculty grappled with details of the law, trying to discern what, in the waves of adolescent behavior they confront, amounts to bullying.

Identifying issues early on

In a cramped school conference room, a dozen Burlington High staffers gathered around a table, laptops open. It was 8:30 on an early October morning, barely a month into the school year. One by one, they listed names of students “at risk’’ for a range of problems. The words that emerged as they read from their notes told a story of contemporary high school life: pregnant, gay, foster home, antidepressants, divorce.

The meeting was a kind of intelligence briefing that is held every other Tuesday. Guidance counselors, administrators, and a school psychologist go over what they’ve learned about student troubles — information gathered from teachers, in meetings with students, or in casual encounters around school. Bullies and victims tend to have backstories of inner turmoil, the staffers say; by sharing what they know, they hope to target problems early.

Such meetings have been held at the school for years, but this year they are more frequent and more urgent. The new antibullying law could expose the school — and individual staffers — to lawsuits by parents or state authorities if they don’t manage these cases correctly. Today, 20 student names will come up.

At the head of the table, Sullivan raised the name of a teenager who slugged a “good friend’’ over a bitter e-mail exchange. Another student, he said, is struggling with his parents’ divorce. He seems consumed by rage, and his interactions with students and teachers are filled with profanity.

Sullivan asked the school psychologist, who runs a social skills class designed to help troubled students fit in, whether she could accommodate the angry student.

The psychologist, Mary Clare Hayes, shook her head.

“I’m working with kids who are potential targets of bullying,’’ she said. “That kind of puffed-up behavior can be a problem with those kids.’’

The staffers discussed a student struggling with sexuality issues and another who is balking at the school’s recommendation to receive psychological counseling and possibly medication.

The student with special needs whose glasses were taken in his science class comes up. There are worries that he’s being harassed in other ways. Someone mentioned that he is enrolled in the social skills class, an effort to gently coach him away from some of the awkward behavior that seems to invite taunting.

As the meeting wound down — after discussions on some two dozen cases of potential trouble, none specifically identified as bullying — Hayes handed out pieces of paper. “These are the reporting forms that we have to fill out,’’ she said.

Hayes, who is leading efforts to help Burlington comply with the antibullying law, believes in the law’s benefits and in the good that might be accomplished by the forms.

“I don’t know if we’ll be audited,’’ she said as she passed the papers, referring to the state Department of Education’s chief tool for enforcing use of the forms. “But we just need to document that we’re doing these investigations.’’

Hayes told the group that she had completed one of the forms a few days earlier — the first to be submitted at the school — about an alleged arm-twisting assault involving two freshmen girls. She said she gave it to Sullivan for investigation and further documentation.

Sullivan didn’t look up. Others at the table looked eager to move on.

“Can we discuss this at the guidance meeting next week?’’ another administrator asked.

Perception versus reality

Several weeks later, in late October, Hayes faced some 500 students in the school auditorium as she presided over an assembly on bullying, helping satisfy a new state mandate that schools provide ongoing training to students and staff.

The presentation is hardly the first Burlington effort to raise awareness. The “No-bullying Zone’’ signs taped to posts and walls in the hallways were around, in some form, well before passage of the new law. Classes to help faculty and staff identify distressed students have long been a part of standard training. And school-wide assemblies have been held for years to promote tolerance and compassion.

But Hayes said the attention focused on bullying this year could help bring important changes to teenage culture. On this day, she showed a film designed to encourage bystanders to intervene when they see another student being harassed. Then, standing near a stage at the head of the room, she asked the students to take part in an interactive survey. Flashing questions on a large screen, she prompted students to answer with their cellphones by dialing numbers indicating yes or no. Then this question appeared: “Have you ever been bullied?’’

Seventy-four percent said they had.

It would be a staggering figure, if it is true. But administrators said it is hard to know what to glean from it. Some suspect that the attention given to bullying in the past year has inflated perceptions by parents and children that it is happening to them. The new law defines bullying as a repeated act that causes another person physical or emotional harm. But students, parents, and even some school staffers differ widely on what that means. Superintendent Eric Conti said letters, calls, and e-mails from parents now routinely invoke the word.

“My child feels bullied’’ is a phrase Conti heard a lot in the early fall. “That sentence has been added to everything.’’

Conti is even trying to discourage use of the term at school. He renamed a committee in charge of shaping new antibullying policies the “student empowerment committee.’’

Bullying, he said, “It’s a buzzword.’’

Assessing situations

Sullivan strolled through the din of the school cafeteria one noontime in early November with the casual authority of a beat cop. He waved and smiled as students called out, “Hey Mr. Sullivan!’’

He spotted a boy who had skipped class the day before. The student had come up repeatedly in the morning meetings about at-risk students, where staffers had worried about incidents that made him seem, at different times, both an aggressor and a victim. He has resisted being referred for emotional counseling.

Sullivan tapped him on the shoulder: “Meet me in my office.’’

The associate principal walked away, and some minutes later the boy arrived. He didn’t wait for the administrator to speak, blurting out that a group of students were harassing him online, taunting him with slurs. He pulled out his cellphone and brought up a Web page to show Sullivan the posts.

“They send me bad messages,’’ the boy said.

Sullivan scrolled through. The words were as the boy described them, offensive and inappropriate. But the boy had a history of playing fast with the truth, and Sullivan was wary.

He asked the boy if he had deleted some of the message trail to hide his role in the exchange.

The boy denied doing that but didn’t press his case any further. After accounting for his missed class the day before, he left Sullivan’s office. He has not raised the issue with Sullivan again.

Sullivan didn’t fill out a form, based on what he’d heard. It wasn’t a situation that fit easily into the official categories. And, he said, he likes to “keep the informal stuff in my head.’’

It is a style that he says has served him well in four years at Burlington. Even the bullying report form that had been submitted to him by Hayes earlier in the year — the case of a girl allegedly twisting another girl’s arm — had been easily resolved with a common-sense approach, he said.

The day after receiving the report, he had summoned the two girls to his office. The girls denied there was a problem, saying they were practicing an elaborate handshake. At one point, one girl felt her arm was pulled in a painful way.

It was “no big deal,’’ Sullivan says the alleged victim told him. Sullivan quoted the girl as saying to him, “My mom took it the wrong way.’’ Sullivan called the girl’s mother, who concluded that she must have misinterpreted what her daughter said.

In such cases, the 34-year-old Sullivan sees himself as a defuser and peacemaker. He relies on instinct and what he calls an internal lie detector to keep order in a teenage world of tears, drama, and half-truths.

As the school’s other associate principal, Rick Sheehan, put it: “We referee humanity.’’

Anxiety over forms

Hayes sat at the head of a U-shaped table in a large meeting room. She was there to lead a group of Burlington’s elementary, middle, and high school administrators as they hammered out a detailed antibullying policy for the town schools, due to the state by Dec. 31.

Hayes began: “Has anyone used the form?’’

“My take is that we should document every incident and leave it to the investigation to see if it’s bullying . . . My take is that we overreport, not underreport.’’

Instantly, the administrators aired anxieties: Which incidents rise to a level worth reporting? Where are the forms filed? Do they become part of students’ permanent records?

“Knowing the answers to these questions will be key,’’ said one elementary school principal.

Hayes promised to get more specific information.

The school psychologist, later back in her office, said she has been surprised to be fighting an uphill battle for what seems to her a simple and important practice — consistently documenting problems to make sure none falls through the cracks, potentially preventing tragedies like the high-profile suicides of Phoebe Prince in South Hadley and Carl Joseph Walker-Hoover in Springfield.

“It strings together a series of events that in isolation may not seem like a big deal but could be if you put them together,’’ she said. “Maybe then a story is told.’’

Plans, policy in place

Her view has now become the official way in Burlington. The town’s school committeevoted on Tuesday to adopt a detailed bullying plan. Conti, the superintendent, made one thing clear to his top staff: All incidents of alleged bullying should be documented in writing.

As winter break approaches, administrators at Burlington High are keeping up a hectic schedule. College applications and student recommendations are due, finals are fast approaching. They are pleased that, so far, no major bullying or other behavioral problems have surfaced.

In some ways, however, things have changed.

Sullivan was approached at his desk last week by a guidance counselor who relayed a potential bullying problem involving two male students. The mother of one of the boys had called, the guidance counselor told Sullivan. The boy had said to his mother, “I’m afraid to go to school.’’ A classmate was allegedly threatening to beat him up.

As Sullivan looked into the situation, word came about Conti’s message about the forms. Sullivan met with the boy and his mother and spoke with the student who had allegedly threatened him. He learned that the boys had once been friends but had had a falling-out. The alleged perpetrator had felt humiliated because, he said, his onetime friend was saying things about his family. To stop the verbal attacks, he had suggested they fight it out.

Ultimately, Sullivan helped them reach a peaceful settlement. The boys were back in school, apparently on better terms.

Hours later, a white piece of paper — a bullying prevention form — arrived on Sullivan’s desk from the guidance counselor. Everything was completed, except for the investigation section.

Sullivan took out his pen.