THIS STORY HAS BEEN FORMATTED FOR EASY PRINTING
Joan Vennochi

Investigating socks, missing bullies

By Joan Vennochi
Globe Columnist / November 14, 2010

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THE SENIORS on my daughter’s high school soccer team design silly costumes, involving mismatched socks and ridiculous hats. Wearing the unflattering garb to school one day is tradition for freshmen players.

This year, the athletic director announced the practice would no longer be allowed because of the state’s new anti-bullying law.

An overreaction? Sure. But think of it from the school’s perspective.

Fifteen-year-old Phoebe Prince, the tragic symbol of unchecked bullying in South Hadley, made the cover of People Magazine. Before that, the horrifying details of her suicide after months of torment by fellow students were grist for hours of talk-radio outrage. The public furor over Prince’s death and that of Carl Joseph Walker-Hoover, 11, of Springfield, pushed lawmakers to approve one of the nation’s toughest anti-bullying measures.

When Governor Deval Patrick signed it into law, proponents congratulated themselves on taking a historic step to protect children. And at that moment, the burden of enforcement shifted to school administrators and their staffs.

The law requires teachers and other school employees to report bullying to the principal, or other designated administrator. It mandates training for teachers and staff and calls for educating students at every grade level about bullying, which is defined as a “repeated use by one or more students of a written, verbal, or electronic expression or a physical act or gesture . . . directed at another student ’’ with these effects: causing physical or emotional harm, placing the other student in reasonable fear of harm, creating a hostile environment, infringing on the rights of the student, or materially and substantially disrupting the education process. It’s up to schools to decide when to notify police.

If you’re a principal trying to parse this law, you might look at ninth-grade girls wearing mismatched socks at the behest of upperclassmen and worry that this could cause emotional harm in fashion-conscious high school corridors. At the very least, you would worry that some parent thinks it does, and that your job is on the line if you don’t respond appropriately. Viewed that way, banning the tradition is easier than assuming any risks, no matter how minimal, associated with letting it continue.

The controversial decision by a Needham high school principal to suspend members of the girls’ soccer team for allegedly hazing younger teammates is a more serious variation of the anti-bullying fallout. The suspended students are accused of blindfolding freshmen on the team, leading them around on dog leashes and smashing pies in their faces. Some Needham parents dispute the details, and parents of the accused girls asked a judge to overturn the suspensions. Their request was denied, and the varsity players could not play in a state tournament game, which Needham ultimately lost. The state’s anti-hazing law triggered the school’s action. Enacted in 1985, it defines hazing as “any conduct or method of initiation into any student organization, whether on public or private property, which willfully or recklessly endangers the physical or mental health of any student or other person.’’

The decision to keep the players from a game they worked all season to attain sent the right message about how young people should treat each other. That’s my opinion. But then, that’s the the problem with the new anti-bullying law: It’s all about opinion. The determination of what constitutes hazing or bullying is subjective, and so are the decisions about the consequences. In reaching those subjective conclusions, school officials are both judge and prosecutor.

And given the breadth of their responsibilities, let’s hope they don’t miss serious bullying by focusing on socks.

Ideally, the Needham debate will raise awareness about bullying. New research shows that today’s young people lack empathy. Talking about the impact of words and actions is one way to encourage it.

But this new law requires more than increased awareness. It forces schools to weigh and judge when a line is crossed from unpleasant interaction, which is part of life, to something more sinister. School administrators are damned if they crack down, and damned if they don’t.

Joan Vennochi can be reached at vennochi@globe.com.

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