A Tormenting Problem: An Exploration of New-Age Bullying
This series, spurred by the suicide of a Massachusetts teenager, explores the phenomenon of bullying from every angle, including the experiences of victims and the adults and institutions charged with protecting them. Originally published in the Boston Globe throughout 2010.
Like a lot of kids her age, Phoebe Prince was a swan, always beautiful and sometimes awkward.
Last fall, she moved from Ireland into western Massachusetts, a new town, a new high school, a new country, a new culture. She was 15, when all that matters is being liked and wearing the right clothes and just fitting in.
She was a freshman and she had a brief fling with a senior, a football player, and for this she became the target of the Mean Girls, who decided then and there that Phoebe didn’t know her place and that Phoebe would pay.
Kids can be mean, but the Mean Girls took it to another level, according to students and parents. They followed Phoebe around, calling her a slut. When they wanted to be more specific, they called her an Irish slut.
The name-calling, the stalking, the intimidation was relentless.
Ten days ago, Phoebe was walking home from school when one of the Mean Girls drove by in a car. An insult and an energy drink can came flying out the car window in Phoebe’s direction.
Phoebe kept walking, past the abuse, past the can, past the white picket fence, into her house. Then she walked into a closet and hanged herself. Her 12-year-old sister found her.
You would think this would give the bullies who hounded Phoebe some pause. Instead, they went on Facebook and mocked her in death.
They told State Police detectives they did nothing wrong, had nothing to do with Phoebe killing herself.
And then they went right back to school and started badmouthing Phoebe.
They had a dance, a cotillion, at the Log Cabin in Holyoke two days after Phoebe’s sister found her in the closet, and some who were there say one of the Mean Girls bragged about how she played dumb with the detectives who questioned her.
Last week, one of the Springfield TV stations sent a crew to South Hadley High to talk to the kids.
One girl was interviewed on camera, and she said what was common knowledge: that bullies were stalking the corridors of South Hadley High.
As soon as the TV crew was out of sight, one of the Mean Girls came up and slammed the girl who had been interviewed against a locker and punched her in the head.
The Mean Girls are pretty, and popular, and play sports.
So far, they appear to be untouchable, too.
South Hadley is a nice, comfortable middle-class suburb that hugs the Connecticut River nearby and a certain attitude.
“Things like this aren’t supposed to happen in South Hadley,’’ said Darby O’Brien, a high school parent, wondering why the bullies who tormented Phoebe are still in school. “And so instead of confronting the evil among us, the reality that there are bullies roaming the corridors at South Hadley High, people are blaming the victim, looking for excuses why a 15-year-old girl would do this. People are in denial.’’
School officials say there are three investigations going on. They say these things take time.
That doesn’t explain why the Mean Girls who tortured Phoebe remain in school, defiant, unscathed.
“What kind of message does this send to the good kids?’’ O’Brien asked. “How many kids haven’t come forward to tell what they know because they see the bullies walking around untouched?’’
They were supposed to hold a big meeting on Tuesday to talk about all this, but now that’s off for a couple of weeks.
O’Brien is thinking about going to that meeting and suggesting that they have the kids who bullied Phoebe look at the autopsy photos.
“Let them see what a kid who hung herself looks like,’’ he said.
Last week, Phoebe was supposed to visit Ireland, where she grew up, and she was excited because she was going to see her father for the first time in months.
She did end up going back to Ireland after all, and when her father saw her she was in a casket.
Phoebe’s family decided to bury her in County Clare. They wanted an ocean between her and the people who hounded her to the grave.
Too Little, Too Late Against Bullying Tactics
Back in September, the town of South Hadley brought in Barbara Coloroso to talk to parents, teachers, and administrators about how to combat bullying in the schools.
Coloroso knows as much about the subject as anyone. She was brought into Columbine after two kids who were bullied decided to get even with guns. She was brought into the Red Lake reservation in Minnesota after a 16-year-old shot seven people dead at the high school where he was bullied.
And she was brought into South Hadley, ahead of the curve, ahead of a tragedy, five months before Phoebe Prince, a 15-year-old freshman at South Hadley High, hanged herself after being tormented by a group of girls who just wouldn’t leave her alone.
“The night before I did the in-service session for teachers and administrators last September, we had an evening session for parents. I think there were about 10 parents there,’’ she said.
Last week, the South Hadley mother who had first reached out to Coloroso reached out again: Could you please come back? Coloroso was in Toronto, about to fly home to Denver.
But she changed flights and came back to South Hadley, on her own dime, because she wanted to help, and wanted to see if the schools had been able to implement what she recommended last fall.
On Wednesday night, she found 300 parents facing the School Committee in the auditorium where she had spoken to mostly empty seats five months before. Some of the parents were angry, not just because a 15-year-old girl was dead, but because their kids had been bullied, too, and the official response was muddled at best. Some parents said their complaints were ignored.
On Wednesday night, it was South Hadley. But Coloroso said it could have been any school system in America. Every school has the problem, but some handle it better than others.
Earlier on Wednesday, Coloroso talked to the students in two separate sessions because they couldn’t all fit in the auditorium.
“The kids were frustrated,’’ she said. “They wanted to know what could have been done to prevent Phoebe’s death. It appeared to them that nothing was being done.’’
Administrators told Coloroso their hands were tied, that law enforcement officials told them not to move against suspected bullies who may have driven Phoebe over the edge. But she reviewed where the schools had gone since September, and her assessment was that the elementary schools had implemented her recommendations, and the middle school is getting there.
“The one I felt was unsatisfactory was the high school,’’ Coloroso said. “They said they had a warning and suspension policy in place. But it was nebulous. And the policy didn’t include cyberbullying.’’
Phoebe, who moved to South Hadley from Ireland just weeks before school started, became a target after she dated a senior, a football player, and the coarse words and sneering insults that followed her around the school corridors were only part of the story. Cruel text messages inundated her cellphone. Internet postings followed her home. The torment was born in school but invaded her private space to the point that she had no respite.
“What the community, and even more so the students, needs is a strong antibullying policy that explicitly explains what it is. And it has to include cyberbullying and all forms of hazing,’’ Coloroso said. “Secondly, there’s got to be a procedure in place to determine how they handle the bully, how they protect the target, and what they are going to do with any bystander who may have contributed to this mess and protect them if they are a witness. They don’t have that yet.’’
Coloroso was not surprised by the background music she was hearing: that there may have been other issues at play, any number of things that could have steered Phoebe toward despair and then the noose. It’s called blaming the victim.
“I don’t want to hear that Phoebe had problems, that she and other girls were in a conflict over a boy,’’ Coloroso said. “Calling someone an Irish slut is not a conflict. It’s bullying. You resolve conflict. You stop bullying.’’
When the bullies called Phoebe an Irish slut and texted her messages saying the same, they committed federal hate crimes, Coloroso said.
“Something should have been done right then and there,’’ she said.
Of all the cases she has examined, Coloroso said Phoebe’s most resembles that of Dawn-Marie Wesley, a 14-year-old Canadian girl who before hanging herself left behind her cellphone, which helped the police charge three girls with bullying her.
Phoebe left behind her cellphone, too, and it was fully charged.
On Friday, I called the office of Gus Sayer, the superintendent of schools in South Hadley, to get his reaction to Coloroso’s postmortem. A secretary told me he wasn’t in, and that he wasn’t expected to be in the rest of the day.
Somebody in a position to know told me Sayer left the state on Thursday, so I asked, “Is Mr. Sayer out of state?’’
“I’m not going to give out any information on that,’’ the secretary said.
Apparently, there was something more pressing out of town than a dead girl in town.
System of Secrecy Allows Bullies to Thrive
So where’s the justice for Phoebe?
It’s been 44 days since 15-year-old Phoebe Prince saw no way out of the terrifying cul-de-sac she was forced into at South Hadley High School. The bullies who drove her to the noose might just as well have pushed her off a cliff, because that’s how utterly helpless she felt.
We are told that some of the people who tormented Phoebe have been disciplined. Some have left school. Whether it was on their terms or someone else’s, who knows?
We are told there has been some measure of justice delivered for Phoebe, but who believes this?
Phoebe Prince was the victim of an ethos of secrecy, of anonymity, of people whispering vile things in the corridors, of people typing worse things on their cellphones and computers. The insidiousness of the weapon used against her was its nebulous nature. It was hard to pin down, hard to see, like a poisonous vapor.
What killed Phoebe Prince can only live, can only thrive, in the shadows.
And what has been the official response to her death?
A ringing endorsement of the ethos of secrecy.
What does this say to the vast majority of good kids who are among the 700 in the high school, the hundreds of kids who turned out for a vigil, who cried tears for Phoebe, who have reached out to her family? The response can’t reassure the good kids. Instead it has validated the whole ethos of the bully: keep your mouth shut if you know what’s good for you.
Of course, Gus Sayer, the superintendent of schools, and Dan Smith, the principal, say they are merely following the advice of their lawyers, that even bullies are entitled to due process and privacy.
If you can’t blame the victim, blame the lawyers.
That’s what Cardinal Bernard Law did in the face of scandal. People cried out for transparency, and he pointed to his lawyers and said, in so many words, “They told me I can’t say anything.’’
That’s a marvelous strategy, and it worked so well for Cardinal Law, didn’t it?
The powers that be in South Hadley are acting as if this is nothing more than a dry legal process. But truth isn’t driving this process. Liability is. Avoiding a lawsuit from some mean kid’s parent is more important than the truth.
Sayer and Smith say they can’t even specify what sort of discipline they have meted out. This, no doubt, will be tremendous comfort to Anne and Jeremy Prince, to learn that they can’t be told who tormented their daughter and what consequences the bullies faced.
There was a telling moment the other night at a meeting in South Hadley, ostensibly to convene an antibullying task force. A group of people stood and gave Dan Smith a loud standing ovation.
Just what they were applauding is anyone’s guess, given that we don’t know what Dan Smith did or didn’t do about the bullies who hounded Phoebe, before and after her death.
Maybe they just wanted to show support for an embattled administrator. That’s fine, but what does it have to do with getting justice for Phoebe?
Last week, Darby O’Brien, the first parent to speak out publicly and suggest the school administration’s handling of the investigation into Phoebe Prince’s death was an exercise not in truth-seeking but in damage control, had a meeting with Gus Sayer and Ed Boisselle, the school committee chairman.
Sayer and Boisselle invited O’Brien to join the antibullying task force. O’Brien declined for many reasons, not the least of which is he thinks it’s a little ridiculous to expect lay people to do this, especially after the school department paid an international expert named Barbara Coloroso to tell them how to combat bullying last fall and then promptly ignored her.
But, in the end, O’Brien resisted their overtures on principle.
“They wanted to shut me up,’’ he said.
So, if you’re keeping score at home, this is what some people in South Hadley say has happened: the girl, the worst girl who made the torment of Phoebe Prince her life’s work, is gone. Moved to a school in a nearby town.
Another girl, who denied doing anything but laughing at Phoebe, is gone, too, off to a private school. Her family was victimized themselves by anonymous bullies, who used the Internet as a cudgel as surely as Phoebe’s tormenters did.
And the boy, the football player who Phoebe had a fling with, the social faux pas that landed her on the Mean Girls’ hit list? He’s gone, too. Some kids say he just dropped out. Whatever, he’s not been in school lately.
But some other kids who bullied Phoebe are in school. They’re walking around like nothing happened. Maybe they got a reprimand, or something written in their file.
No one knows for sure.
There are still kids who have not come forward, who have not been asked what they knew about what was done to Phoebe Prince.
And there are doubtless some kids who are unfairly suspected - maybe they’ve just been out sick a few days, and people wonder at their absence. Were they among those suspended?
If someone is treated that way, it would be totally wrong, totally unfair, and totally predictable, because very little good comes when there is a dead girl and secrecy is the most valued currency.
The Agony of a Girl Who Just Wanted to Fit in
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.
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.
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.
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.’’
The Courage of a Boy Named Cole
SANDWICH, N.H. — In a cabin of boisterous, athletic boys, there, too, was Cole. The 10-year-old is a devout comic book reader. An only child, he is close to his parents, favors large T-shirts that hide his bulky frame, tends to hover close to people he wants to befriend, and prefers arts and crafts to the sports activities offered at Camp Hale.
It didn’t take long for the taunts to come, many of them focused on his weight.
“Cole looks like a big bear,’’ was among the least hurtful.
Counselors were quick to act. They recalled their three-hour training session on bullying and called out the boys lobbing the taunts. They told Cole to be strong. The taunts continued. On the third night of camp, before bedtime, they gathered the boys.
“I tried to explain to them that not everyone is the same and you have to meet people where they are at,’’ recalled Royal Nunes, the 19-year-old lead counselor in the bunk of seven boys. “I had Cole talk about how he felt; he said he felt sad. Then the whole cabin got up and apologized and agreed to work together toward not doing that.’’
A few days later, the taunts began anew.
Like schools, camps are confronting the challenge of bullying. In the aftermath of the case of Phoebe Prince, the teenager who killed herself last spring after suffering the slings of bullies at South Hadley High School, the risk of not taking action is too high, in the view of many camps. But what of a case like Cole’s? Over the course of three weeks, counselors would devote time, energy, and resources to ending the bullying of Cole, only to arrive, with difficulty, at a recognition of the limits of what they could do in the short span of a camp session.
As part of the Globe’s ongoing examination of bullying and adults’ efforts to control it, a reporter spent parts of a recent session at Camp Hale, where addressing bullying was a focus this summer. With the permission of parents, the Globe was permitted to interview campers, including Cole, and to observe their daily interactions. To safeguard their privacy, the paper is identifying Cole and his parents only by their first names and withholding the names of other campers quoted in this report.
Specialists say that children can be especially prone to bullying at camp, as they try to establish their place in the social order of the new setting. Forming alliances and cliques that exclude one child is a typical ploy, an easy means of gaining power and status. Such bullying can be especially hard on a child in a 24-hour-a-day environment, far from home and normal social supports.
It is now standard practice for camps to hold in-depth training sessions for counselors on bullying, taught by either a child psychologist or camp administrator.
Campers, too, are briefed on bullying and asked to incorporate a no-bullying pledge into “bunk agreements’’ that are drawn up at the start of many sessions.
Camps have stepped up supervision during transitions between activities, such as the walk from the archery range to the waterfront, when bullying often occurs. Supervision is particularly intense at the start of camp.
“The first couple of days are times of high social complexity; it’s when the kids are just getting to know one another,’’ said Heather Kiley, director of Camp Merrowvista in Center Tuftonboro, N.H. “So it’s then that a staff member’s presence is very important. It allows kids to transition into the community. It creates a safe environment where kids can relax.’’
Certain rites of summer camp are being rethought. Pranks — even the tamer ones, such as filling shoes with shaving cream — are no longer allowed at some camps, or only with counselor supervision, for fear that they will be aimed at the most vulnerable few.
For many camps, such policies are selling points to parents.
“Camping is a very competitive market; there are choices,’’ said Greg Pierce, director of Pierce Camp Birchmont in Wolfeboro, N.H. “Parents are looking for the best possible environment.’’
Camp directors say the strongest line of defense against bullying remains the counselors, many of whom are teenagers themselves, often just a few years older than their campers.
“To be a great counselor, you have to spend time with the difficult child, the child who cries all the time,’’ Jerrell Cox, director of Camp Hale, told his staff days before the start of camp. “The meaningful relationship will carry you through the summer, so that when someone says something, he’ll come to you and tell you. Then you can go to the bully and say, ‘What’s going on?’ ’’
He continued: “We have to show them that we are vigilant. We are attentive. Our goal is to prevent bullying 100 percent.’’
A counselor with authority
Camp Hale is spread along the shores of Squam Lake, not far from the filming site of “On Golden Pond.’’ it is tidily rustic, with tin-roofed cabins lined with metal frame beds and exposed rafters that beg to be swung from, and sometimes are. The start of meals and activities is signaled with the scratchy recording of a bugle call, blaring from loudspeakers. The all-boys camp, founded in 1900 and operated by the nonprofit United South End Settlements, draws campers principally from the South End, Roxbury, and Dorchester. Many come from low-income families, and financial aid is afforded, though parents are expected to contribute.
Cox, the camp director, is a 26-year-old Boston native who wears his hair in long braids and uses a brand of authoritarian tenderness with his charges. The threat of getting sent to Mr. Jerrell is enough to stop most campers in the midst of an infraction, be it talking back or wearing pants low enough to show boxer shorts. (“We are gentlemen here.’’)
Yet there is a sensitivity in Cox that gives him an uncanny ability to size up 10-year-old boys and sift through their maze of emotions and antics.
“When he talks to me, I feel calm,’’ Cole said of Cox.
From day one, Cox kept an eye on Cole. Cole had attended Camp Hale the year before and had been the target of jibes. Cox had encouraged Cole to return this summer, talking with his mother and father and empathizing with Cole, telling him about how he, too, had been a heavy-set kid when he attended Camp Hale years earlier. He had also been made fun of. A counselor had consoled him and given him strength, he recalled. He wanted Cole’s counselors to do the same for him.
“We have to let them know that they are perfect the way they are,’’ he told counselors in the training session before camp began, referring to children like Cole. “These are the sorts of things we want to build up in these children.’’
Cox knew that for Cole, as for many campers, the basic struggle was simply making friends. Cole is not a natural at the verbal volleying of 10-year-olds. He does not watch sports, leaving him unable to participate in a major topic of conversation. His friends at school in Boston tend to be interested in science and his favorite style of comic, anime. Boys with those interests are in short supply at camp, but especially in his cabin. To seek acceptance, Cole tended to push his way into groups, often playfully poking people, a move that soon grated on other campers.
“Cole was following everyone and poking people,’’ said a tall boy with braces from Roxbury who was friends with Cole last summer. “I forgot that I was friends with Cole.’’
“He was annoying,’’ said another boy, from Mattapan.
The boys made a pact.
“We decided we would all just laugh at Cole,’’ one of them said.
When the laughing began, Cole sobbed, so hard at times that he could not explain to counselors what had happened.
The crying, counselors say, cemented Cole’s trajectory.
The other kids “realized he was an easy target,’’ Nunes said.
Counselors convened the all-bunk meeting of the boys and discussed Cole’s situation at their Sunday night all-staff meeting. Afterward, counselors campwide began tending to Cole.
“I made sure to say hi to Cole,’’ said Jonn Semexant, a 22-year-old counselor from Medford. “I’d celebrate the little things, like his being on time to line-up. I’d ask Cole: ‘What’s up? Love you buddy.’ ’’
“Cole is a sensitive kid,’’ said Heather Favot, the camp nurse. “He internalizes everything. . . . When he’d come to see me, he’d want hugs. So each day, I tried to be sure I saw him.’’
Counselors emphasized to Cole that he needed to feel proud and push back against his tormenters.
“You got to love yourself,’’ Nunes recalled telling Cole.
A few days later, Cole took him at his word. When a scuffle broke out in the bunk, one boy pushed Cole, and another boy yelled at him. This time, Cole did not cry. He punched one of the boys.
Counselors could not abide Cole’s hitting another child, but they inwardly cheered him. He had stood up to an adversary in front of the other boys. Now their task was to rechannel Cole’s push-back.
“We put forth the message that if he wants to stand up for himself, he needs to use words, ’’ Cox said. “It’s kind of a mixed message: We want them to take these sorts of things into their hands but not literally.’’
There were other signs of Cole’s emerging strength. He excelled in archery and arts and crafts. He climbed 2,000-foot mountains. He made friends with two boys in different cabins, quiet, inward boys like him. And on July 10, at the close of parents weekend, Cole seemed more at ease than he had been the previous year when he had stood, crying, as his parents drove away. This year, before they had reached the parking lot, Cole said to them, “Mommy and Daddy, I am very proud of you.’’ Then he walked away, said his father, John.
“It made me feel so good to see him walk away before we reached the car,’’ his father said.
It was progress, but Cole’s problems had not been completely solved. The boys in Cole’s bunk, as far as adults could see, were doing what they had pledged.
“He’s everyone’s friend in the cabin,’’ one boy said, but then confessed that they treated Cole differently when parents and counselors were away. “It’s all fake-playing,’’ the boy said. “The cabin doesn’t like him because he’s getting everyone in trouble.’’
In an interview shortly after parents weekend, when asked about his friends at camp, Cole made quick mention of two friends in other cabins but none in his own. He said that he sometimes told his counselors about the bullying, but other times handled it himself.
“I’m sometimes mean to kids because they bother me,’’ he said. “It’s so hard.’’
Cole bent his head and caved his shoulders. “They keep bullying me,’’ he said. “And they said I could go home.’’
Tears were forming, and he looked up and asked, “But how come I didn’t get to go home?’’
Child psychologists say there is little question that stopping bullies is better than the laissez faire approach of 30 years ago, when children were largely left to sort out their own conflicts.
Research has shown that repetitive taunts and put-downs can have long-term psychological effects.
Yet some say the new interventionist approach can go too far.
“There’s a danger of turning a bunch of kids into victims, instead of standing up for themselves,’’ said Ethan Schafer, a child psychologist who advises summer camps. “We do have to teach kids not to run to adults for every conflict that comes up.’’
A counselor at Camp Hale, Jake Giberson, 19, put it this way: “When I was in camp, there used to be less supervision. There were a lot more fights, and that was the end of it. Now, there are a lot less fights, but things never get settled, because we step in.’’
But as parents demand more safeguards for their children, camps including Camp Hale view strict antibullying policies as mandatory, telling counselors they cannot simply look the other way.
“Reporting [bullying] to us is keeping a child safe,’’ Cox told his counselors at one of the late-night Sunday staff meetings in the chow hall where bullying control dominates the conversation. “Tattling is trying to get someone in trouble. We want the children to know the difference. If someone is making their quality of life less, we want to know.’’
A difficult decision
On the last day of camp, six boys huddled, playing a card game. Only Cole lay on his bed, reading a comic book. No one invited him to play, and he made no overtures to join the game.
His counselor, Nunes, approached and sat on his bed.
“Do you want to read or do you want to play?’’
“Are you sure?’’
Cole nodded, his eyes darting across the comic panels.
Little would lift his mood, not even learning from the nurse that he had lost 10 pounds in three weeks.
“I’m not coming back,’’ he said as he walked away from the nurse’s office to get ready to go home to Boston.
When asked why, Cole shook his head.
His counselor felt equally down-beat.
“I wasn’t able to stop a problem,’’ said Karriem Bowers, 16, the counselor in training assigned to Cole’s bunk. “I tried to be over-the-top strict, and it didn’t work. . . . I tried the whole, ‘This is a fraternity, and you need to treat everyone like they are your brother.’ They absorb it and release it.’’
He said time was against him. Three weeks was not enough to break the bullies and strengthen Cole.
“If we had another two weeks, I believe the bullying would not be a problem,’’ Bowers said.
Back home in Boston, Cole told his parents, in dribs and drabs, of the bullying, leaving them pained over whether to send him back for second session, as planned.
“I don’t want to stop my son from going to a camp where he can benefit, just because he’s being bullied,’’ said his mother, Tonya. Yet when he came home, she said, “my son had tears in his eyes. ‘Mommy, please don’t send me back,’ he said. And that breaks my heart, to see my son like that.’’
His father, John, was similarly conflicted.
“It’s a weird position to be in as a parent,’’ he said. “It’s heartbreaking because you want it to work out perfectly but your life can’t work out that way.’’
John said he knows his son is still learning social skills and often upends the process by trying to press children into friendship. “It’s so hard, because I want to say to my son, ‘Don’t try so hard,’ ’’ John said. “It’s only as an adult that you realize that some people are not going to be your friends.’’
He believed that sending Cole back to camp would help Cole along a path to learning some of those life lessons.
“My whole thing is I am relying on the counselors and the camp,’’ the father said.
Cox wanted Cole back, and on a Saturday afternoon, Cox visited Cole with his parents at their apartment. Cox explained that the second session would include older campers, the 11-to-14 crowd, who would be more mature and would probably be easier for Cole to befriend.
“Cole is strong, stronger than you think,’’ Cox recalled telling his parents. “The bullying hurts at him at the time, but he's able to move on.’’
Cole’s parents agreed: Cole would visit his uncle in Florida and then return to Camp Hale for the last two weeks of the second three-week session.
Last Monday evening, the day before his scheduled return to Camp Hale, Cole sat with his mother in their community garden where they had watered their tomatoes, hot peppers, and green beans under the light of a setting sun.
When conversation turned to the next day, Cole burrowed under his mother’s arm, saying: “No! You’re not forcing me back to New Hampshire. You’re not doing it!’’
“Why are you doing this, Cole?’’ his mother asked.
“I really hate New Hampshire and that camp!’’
“Do you know how many kids never get a chance to go to a camp like that? You’re getting an opportunity to do other things, Cole,’’ his mother said.
“If those kids are picking on me, I’m going to lose it,’’ Cole said.
“But did you lose it?’’
“And you won’t,’’ she said. “I promise you will be all right. Mr. Jerrell will make sure he looks after you. OK? Kids are kids. You’re a kid.’’
Cole looked up at his mother and smiled.
“Are you going to be OK?’’
“I hope so,’’ he said, entwining her hand in his
An Epidemic of Anxiety
One afternoon last year, Susan retrieved a phone message. It was brief, to-the-point, and the sort that makes a parent’s heart stop.
“There’s been an incident involving your daughter,’’ the high school assistant principal reported.
Susan raced to the school and was led to a room where she sat next to her sobbing daughter as the school psychologist began to speak.
A boy who had been chatting with her daughter by instant message had convinced her to send a topless photo of herself, the psychologist said. He had used his cellphone to send the photo to others at the school. A group of students who had long taunted her daughter orchestrated the photo prank, which was carried out by a boy who only pretended to be interested in her, Susan later learned.
“Stop everything,’’ Susan recalled thinking that day, as police filed in to investigate the potentially criminal transmission of the photo. “This isn’t happening to me.’’
The horror she felt is one that parents routinely dread. With a rash of high-profile suicides by students harassed at school in recent years and a new belief that bullying can cause severe emotional damage, incidents that once might have been dismissed as routine events of childhood are now viewed by many as clear and present dangers. Anxiety about them has taken a place alongside more familiar parental fears.
“The big worry used to be stranger danger,’’ said Danielle Champoux Bohnke of Melrose, mother of a kindergartner. “Now the people you know are equally dangerous.’’
Interviews with a wide range of parents — including some with very young children — found many struggling to cope with a threat that can seem to lurk everywhere. Seeking advice this fall, parents have filed into school auditoriums for school-sponsored lectures and have often left with more questions than answers: Are they inadvertently encouraging problem behavior in their children? What about the dangers online? Is monitoring Facebook enough, or should they bar their children from using it at all? Will they miss the warning signs and wind up in a principal’s office after the damage has been already done? Or the unthinkable: Could their child be driven to suicide?
The worries over bullying today are difficult for many parents to reconcile with how bullying was dealt with in their own school days — recollected by many as an unpleasant but passing nuisance, something a child simply had to outlast or fight his way through. Yet a growing body of research shows that bullying often has longlasting impacts, particularly in an age when the Internet and cellphones have dramatically changed the landscape. Humiliating photographs can be broadcast to hundreds with the stroke of a keyboard. Cutting remarks can come in floods through instant messages and cellphone texts. And it can all happen outside the view of parents or school administrators.
“It’s scary as a parent dealing with this stuff,’’ said Joan Shay of Danvers, the mother of two teenagers. Like many parents interviewed, she spot-checks Facebook, insisting from time to time that her daughter show her page. She checks to make sure her daughter has not been the recipient of untoward messages or, in the wake of a new state law that provides criminal penalties for bullying, that she has not sent any. Some parents go further and demand their children’s Facebook passwords so that they can check in at any time.
“Everyone thinks their kid’s a good kid, but you want to make sure,’’ Shay said.
As treacherous as the online world can seem, some say they worry most about what happens at school, where small slights might be nothing or might be the first signs of something serious.
Liz Potter of Danvers, said she now questions her 15-year-old daughter intensively about her friends and relationships — far more than she did when her older children were in high school. “I speak more candidly with her,’’ she said.
She has discovered, though, that if she asks directly about bullying, her daughter reveals little, if anything. So she offers nuggets of information about her daughter’s friends or happenings at school, hoping to flush out details about how she is interacting with others: “I heard such and such. What’s your take on that?’’
Such efforts to head off bullying before it becomes a problem have extended to some parents of very young children, like Sandi Boyle of Newburyport. She is planning to have discussions with her kindergarten-age daughter long before the girl is likely to encounter harmful bullying.
“I’m already rehearsing,’’ Boyle said as she watched the girl practice soccer. “I always have these imaginary talks with my daughter to let her know that she should come to me the minute she feels she is in that situation.’’
A number of parents said they have begun to wonder if their sons and daughters will be subject to bullying because they have personality quirks that make them stand out or because they are quiet and could come across as easy targets.
“It’s hard because we want him to remain a sensitive and innocent and generally nice kid,’’ said Amy Hulse, whose fourth-grade son in Newburyport has had trouble with bigger boys in his school. “But those are the types who are seen as the weak ones.’’
In a cruel twist for parents, the recent attention given to bullying in schools and homes has made it more difficult to identify true bullying, as the state has defined it — patterns of harassment including the “repeated use of verbal, physical, or electronic expression that causes another physical or emotional harm.’’
Children now are more prone to claim bullying, even when there is none, say educators and parents. Some schools have banned the term, for fear that students will use it as an accusation when they merely don’t like something another child did.
Doniel Kofel of Newburyport has learned she must wade through and carefully decipher her 8-year-old son’s accusations of bullying. “He’s said, ‘So and so bullied me.’ And I’ve said, ‘What happened?’ And he said, ‘We were playing outside and he took my shoes.’ ’’
Adding to the confusion, signs of true bullying are often nuanced and deliberately hidden from parents by children who feel shame and embarrassment.
“You have to be a perceptive parent to pick up on the bullying,’’ said Donna, a mother who said her daughter was verbally bullied and, at times, threatened with physical harm in elementary and middle school. The Globe is not publishing the last names of parents whose children have been involved in bullying, or the towns or schools where their children are students, out of concern for the children’s privacy.
“At that time, I just thought it was the way kids pick on each other,’’ Donna said. “I thought it was just brats being brats. We never called it bullying.’’
But then came high school. A group of girls took to following her daughter in the hallways, calling her a slut and a whore. Her daughter said nothing about it to her mother, but Donna recognized changes — long retreats to her bedroom, scant appetite, and bouts of crying.
Eventually, she confronted her daughter, who responded angrily but agreed to therapy. She changed schools and is now doing well, Donna said.
“She has her voice back. She doesn’t let people walk all over her,’’ she said.
In other cases, disbelief and pain can get in the way of a parent’s ability to see that a child is being bullied. Jeff, a father of two boys in a Boston suburb, had listened for months to his wife recount the abuse his younger son was enduring at his elementary school — kids refusing to let him play in games and verbally insulting him. In his mind, true bullying occurred at the middle school level, not in elementary school. In addition, his older son had suffered no bullying. “It wasn’t something I could grasp,’’ he said.
Then one day, his son, who was in second grade, told him about an incident at school.
“He said he had been on the play structure and other kids started walking on the other side, back and forth, eyeing him. I asked him what he did and he said he never got off the swings. He just stayed there all through recess. And I got it. It was terror. My son felt sheer terror.’’
With that realization, he joined his wife in a battle to secure a safer environment for his son — ending with the transferring of their son from public to private school after public school officials failed to take their concerns seriously, they said.
Friends often did not understand the depth of their despair over the abuse, leaving them feeling alone and unsupported. “It was like being trapped in a nightmare,’’ said his wife, Patricia.
To be on the other side — the parent of a child accused of bullying — yields its own form of social isolation for both parent and child.
Stacey, a mother of two daughters in another Boston suburb, said her elder daughter, a shy and quiet girl, suffered bullying for years. Then last year, her younger daughter, who is bolder and more assertive, was accused in fourth grade of taunting a girl in her class — climaxing when the girl accused her daughter of calling her fat, Stacey said. Her daughter said it wasn’t true, but the school transferred the girl who made the accusation to a new classroom. Soon, students throughout the school were taunting Stacey’s daughter as a bully.
It has left her daughter emotionally battered, Stacey said.
“She is socially isolated and is being accused of something she didn’t do,’’ Stacey said of her daughter, who is now in fifth grade. “They have ruined her reputation.’’
For Susan’s daughter, the road back from humiliation has been difficult. After the school’s discovery of the widely distributed topless photo, her daughter told her that returning to her high school to face the boy who had pretended to like her and the others involved felt “like a black cloak enveloping me.’’
Her mother removed her from the school two weeks later, but her daughter, who suffers from a neurological condition and mood disorder, spiraled downward. She was eventually hospitalized for emotional distress.
“She is seeing there are people she can trust, and hopefully she will learn a lot more about coping,’’ said her mother.
Meanwhile, Susan’s life and parenting have been radically altered. She no longer allows her two daughters to use Facebook, which she considers “a weapon of mass destruction.’’ She has quit her job to focus on her two daughters and she, like her husband, is in therapy. She does not plan to send her younger daughter to the public high school where her older daughter’s abuse took place.
“I cannot walk into that building without pain,’’ she said. “I would move out of this town, if I could.’’
A World of Misery Left by Bullying
GLOUCESTER — A dozen years have passed since Anthony Testaverde roamed the halls of Gloucester High School in fear. Yet the 29-year-old remembers the bullying like it was yesterday: the unsupervised locker room that flooded him with terror. The boy who held his arms while another classmate punched him. The day they slammed his head into a metal locker: “Why don’t you just kill yourself?’’ they asked.
On the worst days, when he came home aching with self-loathing, Testaverde told his mother he was going to take a nap. Instead, he retreated to his wood-paneled bedroom and lit a candle, held the blade of his pocket knife over the flame, and then pressed the red-hot metal to his flesh. A decade later, the damage is still visible, in the shape of a small white burn mark on his wrist.
It is not the only scar he carries.
Childhood bullying is an old problem, one that has produced generations of victims. And while many of those bullied as children move past it and thrive in adulthood, a surprising number say they have been unable to leave the humiliating memories behind. Their accounts are supported by a growing body of research suggesting that the bullying experience stays with many victims into young adulthood, middle age, and even retirement, shaping their decisions and hindering them in nearly every aspect of life: education and career choices; social interactions and emotional well-being; even attitudes about having children.
Testaverde was an honor roll student who dreamed of a career in technology or engineering. But he also suffered from a spinal deformity, and said he was ostracized as a “freak’’ and “hunchback’’ throughout his high school years. He never went to college, largely because he feared being bullied again. A self-taught electrical technician, he said he might have done better for himself if it weren’t for the bullying. Deeply self-critical and preoccupied with what others think of him, he said he cannot be at ease in large groups and has found it hard to stay at one job, because even minor workplace conflicts trigger fears and the urge to flee.
“A part of my life has been robbed,’’ he said. “It’s like the show ‘Lost,’ where there are two storylines — one on the island, and one if the plane never crashed. Sometimes I think about what would have happened, if I hadn’t been as depressed, if I could have taken more risks.’’
Still burdened with intense feelings of shame, many would not agree to have their names published.
Chris, 55, says he grew up poor in Central Massachusetts where he was scorned because he was overweight and his father was an alcoholic. He suffered daily beatings at middle school. As an adult, he says, he is plagued by fear and self-doubt, and feels unable to extract himself from the helplessness of his childhood. “To this day, I can’t seem to stick up for myself,’’ he says.
Ken, 47, recalled the way he coped with the mockery of classmates, at a Boston Catholic high school, who incessantly chided him for his effeminate voice. He simply stopped talking, and refused to respond even to teachers who called on him. He went to college but dropped out after six months, he says, because he felt disconnected from his peers, an estrangement he attributes to his suffering in high school.
Carl, a 60-year-old North Shore man, said he was repeatedly beaten at boarding school in Vermont. For decades after, he flashed back to the night in 1966 that a 300-pound bully came to his room and beat him so badly he couldn’t get off the floor. “It became like a demon to me,’’ he said of the memory. “As time passes, you think, ‘Am I going to take this to my deathbed?’ ’’
Such tales are increasingly being supported by scientific studies concluding that bullying is far from a harmless rite, and that it can inflict lasting damage, sometimes of a severity more commonly associated with post-traumatic stress and sexual abuse.
The long-term effects can be potent, researchers say, because the hammering insults of bullies act like fingers jabbed in the still-hardening clay of identity.
“Children are forming their personalities, their self-awareness,’’ said Michele Elliott, founder of Kidscape, an antibullying group that conducted a groundbreaking survey of victims 10 years ago. “To have a group of kids tell you you’re ugly, you’re worthless, to deride someone for having red hair — it’s going to the very basis of who you are.’’
Elliott’s unscientific survey of 1,000 adults was among the first to point at a wide spectrum of debilitating effects of bullying — with large numbers of respondents reporting they had dropped out of school because of bullying, experienced problems making friends later in life, or had contemplated suicide. Forty percent said bullying affected their plans for higher education. Sixty percent said they felt angry about childhood bullying years later.
The survey surprised researchers for another reason: They had expected 300 people to respond to the questionnaire, which was printed in newspapers and handed out in London, but got three times that many.
“It was like uncorking a huge Pandora’s box,’’ she said. “We went into it with the hypothesis that if you heap abuse on someone, it will have some effects, but we were stunned that it lasted so long, that people in their 50s and 60s were still concerned about it.’’
Links to adult depression
Drawing conclusions about the effects of childhood bullying can be difficult because of the many factors that might contribute to problems later in life, including underlying mental disorders. But studies have attempted to account for a wide range of factors, and researchers increasingly are becoming convinced as large, long-term studies find links to depression, anxiety, and low self-esteem.
One respected, long-term study of 2,500 Finnish boys born in 1981 found that children who endured bullying in grade school were two to three times as likely to have a psychiatric disorder by their early 20s, according to records collected as part of mandatory military service. Boys who bullied were also at higher risk.
Even more compelling to those who suspected the effects could last decades, if not a lifetime, a 2008 study of 12,000 Danish men found that those who recalled being bullied at school had significantly higher rates of depression at age 51 than those who did not recall bullying. The study, of men born in 1953 in Copenhagen, adjusted for differences in social class and parental mental illness.
To those who study such effects, the findings are another pressing reason to address the bullying problem.
The Norwegian antibullying specialist Dan Olweus, one of the first researchers to link childhood bullying to adult depression, found that victims were deprived “of considerable joy and satisfaction with their lives,’’ and called for intervention, “not only to stop current suffering, but also because of the long-term [costs] for these individuals.’’
Elliott put it another way: “This is searing, life-changing abuse, that causes victims great pain,’’ she said. “We never expected this kind of clear-cut, overwhelming evidence about the long-term effects.’’
Christina Bailey, 34, was blindsided by bullying in seventh grade. When her family moved to West Springfield, she lost her secure social standing and became the “new girl,’’ slammed into a row of middle-school lockers; ridiculed and beaten; even demeaned by a teacher. She said she “blocked out’’ most of seventh grade, and still can’t bear to say out loud one of the hurtful names her classmates called her.
Today, she blames the bullying for many of the fears that plague her: She can’t handle criticism. She can’t bear to be alone. She is terrified of being the center of attention, stricken at the thought of embarrassing herself. The mother of a 3-year-old with autism, she is haunted by the fear that he, too, will be preyed on. “It’s no fun to bully people who can fight back,’’ she says.
Like a handful of other victims interviewed, Bailey has recently taken steps to put her painful past to use. The flood of attention paid to the bullying problem in recent months has revived hard memories for many victims, but it has also given some an opportunity to fight back in a way they could not when they were young.
For Bailey, that meant lobbying in support of the state’s antibullying bill last spring, pressing its urgency on legislators and collecting testimony from other victims. For Alan Eisenberg, 42, coming clean about his childhood agony has been frightening but cathartic, an exercise in letting go of fear.
His family moved to Lexington when he was 7; by third grade, the sprawling, poorly supervised school playground had become a setting of electrifying fear. He remembers watching the bullies approach from a distance as heart-thumping panic engulfed him. In seventh grade, when a bully threatened to kill him in the woods, Eisenberg was so desperate he stabbed the boy with his mother’s nail file, a desperate, uncharacteristic act that still appalls him.
As an adult, he built a successful career, and told himself the wounded part of his life was behind him. Then three years ago, in the aftermath of the Virginia Tech massacre, as people questioned if the shooter had been bullied, Eisenberg felt something shift inside him.
He began writing about his childhood, and cataloguing the ways it had stayed with him, from his fears of crowds and confrontation to his horror over unfamiliar places. He started a blog and posted his personal stories anonymously. Thousands of visitors flocked to read it, and he grew braver. Last summer, he added his real name to his website (bullyinglte.wordpress.com), lifting the last veil he had used to keep his secret.
It is, he says, the most frightening thing he has ever done. And that is why he presses on, speaking to school groups about bullying and making plans for a documentary film in which he would go back to Lexington, find his bullies and interview them.
“Admitting it happened to you is admitting weakness,’’ he says. “Even as a parent, I was afraid to tell my kids.’’
Specialists say one reason bullying can impart such lasting shame and anger is the deep impression strong emotions leave on memory. Dr. Stuart Goldman, an assistant professor of psychiatry at Harvard, likens victims of severe bullying to war veterans with post-traumatic stress disorder. Years after the threat to their well-being has disappeared, their memories can be triggered by an external stimulus, sparking a primal fight-or-flight response.
Phil Leven, 55, said his years being terrorized by bullies left him with a rage that flares at the slightest insult.
The computer programmer from Douglas, who grew up on Long Island in New York, said he realized in his 30s why he was so angry, decades after he was pushed, tripped, spit on, burned with a cigarette, and ambushed repeatedly on his walks to school.
“Now, if I even suspect someone’s disrespecting me, it’s only with the greatest self-control that I don’t assault them,’’ he said. “It comes from being mad at myself for not standing up for myself as a kid.’’
Of all the searing memories that stalk Testaverde, one comes back to him most vividly. It is a recollection of gym class at Gloucester High School, where changing in the locker room alongside his bullies felt like “being in an enclosed space with a wild animal.’’
That day, his attackers were bolder, going at him on the gym floor. As they did, Testaverde recalls, he had looked up to see the gym teacher watching, shaking his head in disgust.
“That was the hardest thing — seeing someone who had the responsibility to deal with it, who wasn’t, because he thought I wasn’t being a man or something,’’ he says. “It felt horrible, and it felt like something I had to live with . . . I felt like I probably deserved it, because if it was wrong, somebody would be doing something about it.’’
He says he asked a guidance counselor to change his schedule, so he wouldn’t have to take gym with the bullies, but he was told the change was impossible. His mother went to the school and was told the abuse wouldn’t happen again, but it did.
Convinced that nothing could be done, Testaverde withdrew into himself. He stopped talking to his parents about the bullying. He contemplated suicide. To avoid the locker room, he stopped changing for gym class. Increasingly, he stayed away from school altogether, missing two or three days a month his junior year, then one or two a week when he was a senior.
He also abandoned treatment for his back problem, which included physical therapy and a brace. “Why torture myself more than I’m already being tortured?’’ he recalls thinking. His decision to forgo therapy, driven by his hopelessness and depression, led to more health problems in adulthood: chronic back, neck, and chest pain; diminished lung capacity; and digestive problems. Surgery could improve his condition, but because of his modest income, Testaverde says he can’t afford the time away from work.
He moved away from Gloucester after high school; he says it made him angry just to walk around there. He didn’t attend his 10-year high school reunion last summer, and he avoids driving past the high school when he goes home to visit his family.
Testaverde married three years ago, and with his wife, has thought about having children, but he wrestles with the fear his child would be bullied.
He wants to advance his career by taking college courses, but “the idea of a school setting still makes me nervous,’’ he says. “There’s that little nagging voice inside that says, be careful.’’
Still, he is trying to move forward. He decided to tell his story to the Globe in the hope that it would help people see the seriousness of the bullying problem — and might help to heal his own wounds too.
“It’s not just people picking on you at school, and then you go on and live your life,’’ he says. “It’s so hard, when people think you’re garbage. . . . My hope is that one day people understand it can change you completely.’’
Schools Confronts Bullying Head-On
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.’’
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.
No Easy Fix Found for Bullying
Seven years ago, Washington schools were under state mandate to take action against bullying. Among the most touted and highly regarded antibullying programs was a Norwegian one that had reduced bullying by half in dozens of schools in that country. With great enthusiasm, seven Seattle middle schools adopted it.
Committees formed. Parents and teachers received tutoring. Children attended regular meetings. Teachers reported improvement, and principals were delighted.
Yet a rigorous scientific analysis, after three years, showed the program had no overall effect.
“When we have big problems like bullying we are desperate. We want to do something,’’ said Paula Lozano, a University of Washington professor of pediatrics and a coauthor of the Seattle study. “Doing something feels better than not doing anything.’’
This year, Massachusetts schools face a similar state mandate, including the task of choosing from among a dizzying array of programs that promise to reduce bullying. Principals’ e-mail inboxes have been filled with pitches from consultants, self-help gurus, etiquette trainers, and think tanks. Superintendents have sifted through the websites of programs recommended by the state Department of Education, with names like “Al’s Pals: Kids Making Healthy Choices,’’ “Aggressors, Victims and Bystanders,’’ and “PeaceBuilders.’’
Yet research suggests that despite good intentions and feverish competition to pinpoint a solution, antibullying programs have shown, at best, mixed results, and what has worked in one school has not always worked in another.
“I don’t feel we are in the vaccine stage, where we just know that something is going to work and you just have to line up and take a shot,’’ said Elizabeth Englander, director of the Massachusetts Aggression Reduction Center at Bridgewater State University. “We are nowhere near there.’’
Combating bullying is a relatively new order of business in the United States. Europeans began addressing the problem in the 1970s, but bullying here was largely ignored until a spate of school shootings in the 1990s were linked to bullied students. The January suicide of Phoebe Prince and those of other teens nationwide have added new urgency — sparking initiatives in grades as young as kindergarten. The effort, many say, amounts to a social experiment, one that may never put an absolute end to bullying but may make it less socially acceptable, much as earlier campaigns did for drunken driving and sexual harassment.
Among the most authoritative and wide-ranging evaluations of antibullying programs is a 2009 study by Cambridge University researchers. The pair unearthed hundreds of scientific evaluations of individual programs, a number of which they ignored because the studies had not used acceptable methods. Of the 44 they deemed reliable, just 19 showed significant reductions in bullying.
Among the successful programs, the researchers noticed common elements. The programs focused on cultivating parental involvement, increased playground supervision, and firm disciplinary rules for bullies. Generally, the longer the duration of the program, the greater the improvement. Programs worked best with older youths — those over age 11 — probably because they had more advanced thinking abilities, enabling them to grasp the concept of bullying.
The researchers, too, found that a long-used technique among educators — having bullies and victims sit down together to talk — was ineffective. The strategy, other researchers say, fails because bullies often put on a good face in mediation and deny their behavior while the target, cowed in the presence of the bully, agrees.
The Cambridge University findings underscored a growing consensus that any effort to combat bullying must be collective, involving an entire school community — teachers, parents, children who suffer and witness bullying, bullies, school bus drivers, cafeteria workers — and must be regularly reinforced.
“There needs to be a big effort to really change bullying,’’ said David Farrington, professor of psychological criminology at Cambridge University and coauthor of the study.
For Representative Marty Walz, that view come into clear focus at the State House during an emotional hearing last year. A parade of parents, children, and experts testified about the destructive power of bullying. All of the stories were compelling, moving and upsetting.
But one stuck out.
A mother told of the night her teenage son went to a school dance. Her son suffers from autism and was intimidated by the social setting, but nonetheless ventured onto the dance floor. Unknown to him, a classmate videotaped him and posted the video on the Web. Come Monday morning, the teen was met with a barrage of insults and taunts about the video.
“The level of cruelty was just astounding to me,’’ said Walz, chief author of the state’s antibullying law. “I knew with our law we needed to do more and something different than was being done in other states.’’
It wasn’t enough, she said, just to punish bullies. The law needed to change school culture — to make humiliating a fellow student’s dancing something worthy of punishment, but also unacceptable by the measure of the larger school community. So Massachusetts mandated a wide range of action by schools, including: offering information to parents, providing training to teachers and staff, ensuring that children with disabilities obtain skills to respond to bullying, and teaching students about bullying at every grade level.
The law, of course, is a tough order — mandating a change in a behavior often ingrained in human nature, particularly among youth.
The challenge was evident on a recent morning at the Ivan G. Smith Elementary School in Danvers, which last year, as part of a district-wide initiative, adopted the Norwegian Olweus Bullying Prevention Program.
In a fourth-grade classroom, Jennifer Mitchell posed this hypothetical bullying scenario to her students: What would they do if they were a member of a student group that deliberately excluded just one student?
One boy suggested telling a teacher. Another telling a parent.
“Yes, good,’’ Mitchell said.
Then one girl suggested another route: She would quit the group. Then she would approach the excluded girl and form a new group, from which other students would be excluded. Mitchell was momentarily flummoxed.
“Is there a way you could make it less of a group?’’ Mitchell prodded, trying to help the girl understand that turning the tables merely perpetuated the bad behavior.
“Maybe it could be a homework group?’’ the girl suggested, grasping the point only after more explanation by Mitchell.
Teachers said the exchange highlights the value of lessons such as Mitchell’s — teaching students to think about bullying and its core elements, such as exclusion. It’s that sort of thinking, the teachers said, that has yielded greater awareness and consensus among students about what bullying is and when to report it.
The week before Mitchell convened the meeting in her classroom, a group of Smith students had organized a recess group modeled on a popular television show. The group voted students out of the group, and then barred them from watching the proceedings. Within days, several students had reported the group to an administrator.
“Five years ago, they wouldn’t have come to us so quickly,’’ said Luciana Maffeo, a teacher’s aide.
In a measure of how seriously the school now takes such behavior, administrators banned students from playing the game and insisted that the students write new rules and submit them for approval before it could resume.
The results of the Smith School’s work with the Olweus program — which also has included teacher and staff training, a kick-off pep rally, canary yellow signs posted around the school that list antibullying rules, and outreach to parents — remain to be seen since the program has been in effect for less than a year. Other studies of the Olweus program, the best known bullying programs, offer mixed results.
Developed in the 1980s by the man who pioneered bullying research, Dan Olweus, the program demonstrably decreased bullying in Norway. But in the United States, the picture is less clear. One California suburban town reported a 21 percent decrease in student reports of being bullied after a year in the program. But South Carolina schools in largely rural districts saw “no significant changes’’ in the frequency of such reports. Meanwhile, the Seattle study showed that Olweus improved bullying rates among some white students but did not affect bullying rates among students of other races and ethnicities — yielding an overall neutral result.
Some researchers attribute the divergent outcomes in Norway and the United States to the influence of Olweus in Norway.
“Olweus is very well organized and organizes others very well,’’ said Ken Rigby, a bullying researcher and adjunct professor at the University of South Australia, who noted that both German and Belgian schools have produced disappointing results using the Olweus method.
Other researchers are more critical, noting that Olweus conducted much of the research evaluating his program in Norway — a practice that is common, but not preferred, in social science circles as it can produce biased results.
“It’s like the Wizard of Oz,’’ said Nan Stein, a senior researcher at the Wellesley Centers for Women who has produced her own antibullying program.
Olweus officials say the program’s varying results reflect a research field still in its infancy.
“We are all pioneers,’’ said Marlene Snyder, director for development for Olweus in the United States. “I don’t know of any field that got it right from the very beginning.’’
On the ground in Seattle, educators say, the Olweus program was, in a word, work.
“It took a lot just to get [people] to agree on what bullying is. I was getting a lot of argumentation from parents who would say that bullying is just boys being boys,’’ said Marni Campbell, a then-principal of one of the middle schools.
Some students initially also resisted. In particular, they recoiled when they were asked to perform a skit in which they witnessed a bullying incident and had to call out the bully by name — an act that Campbell said is effective in making bullying less anonymous and shows support for the bully victim.
“They thought it was really goofy . . . but it was about changing chemistry and the dynamic in the school,’’ she said.
Nerissa Bauer, chief investigator for the Seattle study, said the study did not produce a clear explanation for why the Olweus program was more effective with white students, but she said in more heavily minority schools, some other issues, such as race relations, tended to crowd out emphasis on bullying.
Ultimately, she said, where Olweus worked, improvement was palpable.
“You could walk into the school and feel a different climate,’’ said Bauer, an assistant professor at Indiana University School of Medicine and a behavioral pediatrician. “There was that larger feeling of school safety, of attention to what’s happening.’’
Replicating that everywhere, she said, is the task that lies ahead.