THIS STORY HAS BEEN FORMATTED FOR EASY PRINTING

Bullying reports contrast sharply

Some districts have hundreds of cases, some a few

By Peter Schworm
Globe Staff / July 17, 2011

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In Springfield, school officials tallied 256 reports of bullying during the recently completed school year. In Lawrence, administrators addressed 240 complaints and alerted police to more than 60, including numerous threats of violence.

Yet in Brockton, administrators recorded just three incidents all year, the first under the state’s new antibullying law that requires schools to document and investigate every complaint and forward potential criminal cases to law enforcement.

Administrators in several other school systems, including Boston, did not know how many complaints had been lodged or how they were handled, saying they are dealt with on a school-by-school basis and not tracked centrally.

The sharply contrasting findings, from a Globe survey of the state’s 10 largest school systems, casts light on a lingering controversy over the Massachusetts law: What, if anything, should schools report about bullying among their students to authorities at the district or state level?

The law, as written, requires schools to document incidents of bullying but does not mandate they pass on the information or that it be tracked by any central authority. Defenders of the law say such a requirement would encourage schools to downplay problems for fear of being penalized. But critics say that without it, the state has no way to judge progress on bullying - or whether schools are in compliance.

A commission charged with reviewing the state law, chaired by Attorney General Martha Coakley, recently recommended that districts be required to submit data on bullying to state education officials, saying the information would help tailor prevention efforts and measure the effectiveness of the law.

Antibullying advocates and specialists, meanwhile, are saying that, at the very least, districts should collect and study data on a local level to guide prevention efforts.

“I’m stunned to think they wouldn’t,’’ said Marty Walz, a state representative and the antibullying law’s chief author. “I fully expect school districts to be evaluating data on a school-by-school basis. If they aren’t analyzing what’s happening, they won’t be able to make the adjustments to prevent bullying in the future.’’

Coakley’s commission concluded that schools should break down bullying data by the likely basis for harassment, such as race, national origin, or disability, and demographic information about victims and perpetrators.

Some administrators are planning to compile bullying data in the coming weeks, saying it is crucial to identify trends.

“We have to start getting the data on this,’’ said Ed Donnelly, the point person on bullying for the Boston public schools. “We need to know where, when, the age of the kids, what seems to work. We think we are making a difference now, but you need to be able to measure it.’’

Since November, Donnelly has run the district’s bullying hotline, which gets about five calls a day, usually from parents of elementary and middle school students.

“It’s the traditional stuff for the most part,’’ he said. “Teasing, punching, often on the school bus.’’

Yet many school officials say bullying is increasingly carried out online or by text message, leaving students open to attack at all hours of the day.

“The cyberbullying piece is huge,’’ said Ann Murphy, assistant superintendent of the Lowell schools, which did not provide details about bullying reports. “It’s just constant with kids.’’

Many exchanges take place outside class but often spill over to the school day, and administrators are required to notify parents when they do. But many parents question why schools are getting involved in what they see as ordinary conflicts between children, Murphy said.

“When it affects the school day, we have to get involved,’’ Murphy said. “But not all of the parents are on board.’’

Still, Murphy believes the law has spurred “hyper-vigilance’’ toward bullying that will help protect vulnerable students. Teachers and administrators now seek to resolve disputes at their core, she said, rather than smooth things over for the short term.

“In the past, we may have left it at that,’’ she said. “Now we’re going deeper.’’

The law was passed in May 2010 amid outrage over the death of Phoebe Prince, a South Hadley teenager who committed suicide after being mocked and threatened by other students.

Widely viewed as rigorous and a potential blueprint for other states, the law stopped short of establishing bullying as a crime. But it required schools to adopt a prevention plan, notify parents of the children involved in incidents, and discipline students appropriately.

Elizabeth Englander, a bullying specialist at Bridgewater State University, said the disparities in what school districts are reporting are not surprising, given the uncertainty over what constitutes bullying.

“How you interpret these things is very subjective,’’ she said. “This kind of data is not very meaningful.’’

Requiring educators to report bullying cases to the state would be counterproductive, she said. Worried about public perception, educators would take pains to minimize the total, she said.

“There is so much social stigma against this behavior,’’ she said. “It’s a good reason for not keeping official numbers.’’

Instead, Englander said, schools should survey students each year to see whether antibullying efforts make a difference.

In New Bedford, district administrators have not counted bullying complaints in schools. The central office received 16 complaints during the school year, all but two from elementary and middle schools. Six of the complaints involved police.

In Worcester, the district’s school safety office has received 93 reports since January. In one-third of the cases, students were ordered to stay away from another student, either by the principal, police, or in six cases, the courts. Other students were arrested, suspended, or referred to counseling.

Of the 93 reports, more than half came from elementary schools, and 35 from high schools.

Cambridge schools reported 36 incidents. Discipline ranged from one-day, in-school suspension (five cases) to 10-day, out-of-school suspension (four cases). Two students were expelled, and criminal charges were filed in connection with one case.

In Lawrence, teachers reported 65 percent of the 240 incidents, an initial review of the data showed, while parents, students, and other staff members reported the rest. Of these 84 incidents, 46 involved texting or Internet postings. All were forwarded to police officers assigned to the schools, as were 18 other cases involving threats or physical aggression, said Superintendent Mary Lou Bergeron.

Bergeron said staff members review bullying reports monthly in an effort to head off emerging problems. This year, for example, staff members noticed a surge in cyberbullying among middle school students and asked teachers to remind students how hurtful derogatory comments can be.

“It’s constant,’’ she said, “because kids forget.’’

Peter Schworm can be reached at schworm@globe.com.