Bullying raises questions about schools' vigilance

By Denise Lavoie/The Associated Press

BOSTON — A gay teenager in New York wins $50,000 from a school district that failed to stop taunts about his sexual orientation. The Justice Department investigates complaints that administrators ignored racial bullying in a Philadelphia school.

And in Massachusetts, a 15-year-old girl hangs herself after she is mercilessly harassed for months — taunting and threats that school administrators knew about but did not stop.

Now, with nine students charged in the bullying of Phoebe Prince, who hanged herself at her family’s home in January, questions have arisen about how accountable school officials should be for stopping bullying.

Barbara Coloroso, a nationally known anti-bullying consultant, had been contacted by South Hadley school officials months before Phoebe’s death, after a young boy in nearby Springfield killed himself. She spent a day there in September, training teachers and administrators on how to recognize and deal with bullying.

Coloroso said school officials made mistakes by failing to stop the bullying and, after Phoebe hanged herself, by allowing at least some of the students involved to continue to attend classes and a school dance with no visible signs of discipline.

“The questions to ask are: Did they follow their own rules and did they keep Phoebe safe? Obviously not. And, did they deal effectively with the bullies? Obviously not,” Coloroso told The Associated Press on Tuesday.

Authorities say Prince, who had recently emigrated from Ireland, endured months of verbal assaults and threats after she briefly dated a popular boy. She was harassed mostly in school, but also on Facebook and through other electronic forms.

District Attorney Elizabeth Scheibel said the inaction of school officials was troublesome but not criminal.

More than 40 states have anti-bullying laws that generally require schools to adopt a set of preventive policies. But Marlene Snyder of Clemson University’s Institute on Family and Neighborhood Life said laws and policies don’t necessarily help if schools don’t follow through with intensive training for teachers and staff.

“In defense of teachers, very few of them have ever had training on bullying prevention, much less how to intervene without making the situation worse,” she said. “Some people don’t understand the dramatic and devastating effect that this kind of treatment can have on a child.”

In upstate New York, the Mohawk Central School District agreed Monday to do more to protect students from harassment as part of a settlement with a gay teenager who claimed he was relentlessly bullied.

The boy, described only as 15-year-old Jacob, now goes to another school, and his father said he hopes other districts take note of what happened in the working-class village.

“I wish some other schools would follow in the footsteps of this school and make changes,” said Robert Sullivan, who has a different last name than Jacob. “A lot of schools are going through the same thing as this school.”

In Georgia, 11-year-old Jaheem Herrera committed suicide at his Atlanta-area home last year after his parents say he was repeatedly tormented in school. School officials denied it and an independent review found bullying was not a factor, but his family rejects that conclusion.

And at South Philadelphia High School, Asian students say they’ve endured relentless bullying and racial epithets by black students while school officials ignored their complaints. The Asian American Legal Defense and Education Fund filed a complaint in January with the U.S. Justice Department.

In the Massachusetts case, school officials had previously said they did not know about Phoebe’s harassment before she committed suicide. They have said some students accused of taking part in the bullying have been disciplined and will not return to class.

Administrators and School Committee members did not return calls and e-mails seeking comment. In a statement, Assistant Superintendent Christine Swelko said “a small group of students” was removed from school Tuesday. She would not say how many or whether they had been expelled.

She said the school, through its anti-bullying task force, was continuing to review its policies and programs.

Legal experts said it would be difficult to charge school officials criminally, but said Prince’s family could have a cause of action in a wrongful death lawsuit.

“If the mother told more than one school official what was going on, it would come down to what she actually told them, and then if they did nothing about it and something bad happened as a result, that is a basic argument that the school was indifferent and could be legally liable for what went on,” said Peter Hahn, a Newton attorney who specializes in education and juvenile law.

Massachusetts is one of only seven states without a specific law targeting school bullying, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures.

The Legislature cited Phoebe’s death and the apparent suicide of 11-year-old Carl Walker-Hoover of Springfield last year in passing anti-bullying legislation earlier this month. The Legislature still needs to approve a final version before sending it to the governor.

Many parents complain that the laws aren’t enforced consistently and that school officials don’t do enough to remove bullies from schools.

Ted Mathews, a South Hadley parent who said his 13-year-old son was harassed in school several years ago, said he doesn’t understand why school administrators did not intervene.

“Bottom line is, they could have done something, but they didn’t,” Mathews said. “My personal belief is if you’re going to hold these kids accountable, then you’ve got to hold these adults accountable, too. Everybody’s got an excuse, but it doesn’t bring her back.”

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AP National Writer David Crary and Associated Press writers Stephanie Reitz in South Hadley, Mass., Karen Testa in Boston, and Michael Hill in Albany, N.Y., contributed to this report.