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Schools seeing shift on bullying

More students now willing to report it

Gold School of Dance Art members performed an act with an antibullying message last April in Bridgewater. Principals say students are increasingly aware of the damage bullying can do. Gold School of Dance Art members performed an act with an antibullying message last April in Bridgewater. Principals say students are increasingly aware of the damage bullying can do. (George Rizer/Globe Staff/File)
By Jennette Barnes
Globe Correspondent / September 8, 2011

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School bullies, beware: Your prey is more likely than ever to report your bad behavior to a teacher or principal this year.

Student culture is changing, administrators say. Spurred by increased programming after the suicide of two Massachusetts students in the last few years and the antibullying law that followed, students are more aware of the damage bullying can do. Victims are less stigmatized, and witnesses are more comfortable speaking to authority figures.

“These kids come down to keep us informed like it’s their job,’’ said Al Makein, principal of Furnace Brook Middle School in Marshfield. A “reverse peer pressure’’ has evolved, he said, in which the promise of anonymous reporting means bullies feel the gaze of disapproving peers.

Sometimes, students are the ones providing the programming. At Brockton High School, teens in the peer mediation program found out about an event called Day of Pink and got their school involved last year.

Day of Pink was started by students, too. It began informally in 2007, when two 12th-grade boys at a Nova Scotia high school heard that a ninth-grader had been harassed on his first day of school for wearing a pink polo shirt. CBC News reported that, according to students, “bullies harassed the boy, called him a homosexual for wearing pink, and threatened to beat him up.’’

The two older boys went to a discount store, bought 50 pink shirts, and spread the word by e-mail. Hundreds of teens showed up in pink the next day in a show of support, according to CBC. Today, Day of Pink organizational materials are distributed by Jer’s Vision, a Canadian organization that works to prevent bullying, homophobia, and all types of discrimination.

Teens in Brockton High’s peer mediation group organized a Day of Pink, including related classroom activities, with the help of two faculty advisors.

“It physically shows all the people against bullying,’’ said Kasharena Horton, a 2011 Brockton graduate and freshman at American University. “It’s not to punish the bullies. It’s more to show that the victim is not just one; it’s a lot of people.’’

Since the state’s antibullying law went into effect last year, reports of bullying have edged upward as staff members are required to report any possible instance of bullying to an administrator. At Dedham Middle School, twice as many cases of bullying, harassment, or teasing were reported during the last school year compared with the previous year, and reports increased at Norwood High School as well - changes administrators attribute to better reporting.

Makein agreed that better awareness produced more reports of potential bullying. “I think we’re getting more reports, but it’s because people are paying more attention,’’ he said.

The law does not require school districts to report their incidents to the state, and several superintendents said they don’t keep track of the number. Administrators are required to investigate every potential bullying case, but more often than not, they determine the case has another explanation. In Milton, 57 cases were reported last school year, but only 11 were deemed bullying.

Not all districts have observed an increase in reports. At Braintree’s East Middle School and at Canton High School, school leaders said they haven’t seen more cases. But everyone is aware of the problem, they said, and the schools have been training staff and students what to do. State law mandates training for all school employees, not just teachers.

Doug Dias, principal at Canton High School, believes more students appreciate the seriousness of bullying than in the past. “When I have conversations with kids about behaviors that could be interpreted as bullying, they become very somber, and they don’t laugh it off anymore,’’ he said.

Still, schools have more work to do, Dias said. This year, he would like the school to spend time teaching students how to respond in the moment if bullying happens in front of them.

East Middle School assistant principal Andrew Curran said the reporting and paperwork are more formalized under the new law. Teachers have been “kind of deputized,’’ he said, due to their role filling out reports of potential bullying. Curran received about eight such reports last year, but as far as he could recall, none were found to be bullying, he said.

The law required Massachusetts school districts to submit bullying prevention and intervention plans to the Department of Elementary and Secondary Education by Dec. 31 of last year. Although some districts missed the deadline, all the plans were filed by the end of January, according to JC Considine, education department spokesman. Not all, however, are considered complete.

The department notified districts whose plans appeared unclear or incomplete, and to date, 14 plans remain so. Those in southeastern Massachusetts include Freetown-Lakeville, Berkley, Nantucket, and Gosnold.

The education department determined that Freetown-Lakeville’s plan did not have a strategy to protect witnesses who provide information in a bullying investigation. And the district only partially addressed how it would communicate with parents and guardians about bullying prevention, Considine said.

John McCarthy, Freetown-Lakeville’s superintendent, was surprised to learn from a reporter that the state judged his district’s plan incomplete. He said he never received the state’s memo in March or the follow-up e-mail in July, but he pledged to ready changes for a School Committee vote scheduled for yesterday. McCarthy said he believes both elements already exist in the plan, but he will clarify them.

“We have to make things a little clearer, and that’s a pretty simple fix,’’ he said.

Left unchecked, bullying can hurt students’ grades as well as their self-esteem, and a new study suggests academic harm may be magnified for black and Latino teens who are high achievers. Presented Aug. 23 at the annual meeting of the American Sociological Association, the study found black students who had a grade point average of 3.5 in ninth grade and were bullied the following year saw their GPAs drop 0.3 points when they were seniors, an effect 10 times greater than for whites. For high-achieving Latino students, the effect was even greater, with their GPAs dropping a half-point.

“We suggest that it might be them breaking stereotypes,’’ said lead author Lisa M. Williams, a doctoral student at Ohio State University. She said if the black and Latino students in the study were bullied for breaking a stereotype of low achievement, they might have reacted by shying away from achievement.

Other evidence suggests, she said, that some school officials respond differently to the bullying of minority students because they view them as tough and street-smart, and therefore less in need of help.

Asian students who were bullied lost just as much as high-achieving black students on their GPAs, and for them, the effect of bullying was uniform, whether they were high or low achievers as freshmen.

Jennette Barnes can be reached at jennettebarnes@yahoo.com.