When they pass through school hallways, eighth-graders at Annie Sullivan Middle School in Franklin are friendly, orderly and chatty. But hallway time in any school can be a time for snickering or teasing, which psychologists call "gateway behaviors" that can precede bullying.
That's what teachers at the school learned in a recent training session mandated under the new bullying prevention law. They also learned that Principal Beth Wittcoff expects them to take action when they witness such things.
"Take it away from the target, who's going to be afraid of the bully or the person who has more power," Wittcoff said.
It's one new element of the respectful community Wittcoff said she's always tried to foster for her students, through assemblies, clubs and communication.
"I've talked to a lot of parents who say, 'You know what, I'm not going to call the school, because then they're going to find out that my son told that they were being bullied, and then they're going to get made fun of more.'"Lisa Keohane, mother
"They need to feel safe in order to learn," she said. But, she adds, only since the new law passed has she deliberately focused those efforts on bullying prevention.
Eighth-grader Andrew Purdy said it's made a difference.
"I think it's making people more aware of bullying and making people think about not doing it," Purdy said. "And maybe they've been doing it subconsciously."
But despite all the attention on the issue, some students and even some parents still struggle with speaking up.
Mom Lisa Keohane advises the Wired Teens Club at Annie Sullivan. Its members work to combat cyber-bullying.
"I've talked to a lot of parents who say, 'You know what, I'm not going to call the school, because then they're going to find out that my son told that they were being bullied, and then they're going to get made fun of more,' " Keohane said. "We have all these things in place, but we still need to change the behavior."
Combating Cyber-Bullying Remains A Challenge
"I've heard of cyber-bullying in our school with Formspring," said eighth-grader and Wired Teens member Victoria Stowell. Formspring is a social media website, and Stowell said she knows of the anonymous harassment of a specific student on the site. But she hasn't reported it.
"Personally, I don't know if I should tell, because I think the kid should go up and tell himself," Stowell said. "I think some teachers know about it, but they can't stop it either way, because they don't know who's doing it because they don't put their name."
It only takes a few keystrokes online or a few text messages to hurt a kid. And that's created a vast web of extra challenges for school administrators.
But state Elementary and Secondary Education Commissioner Mitchell Chester said school leaders have the responsibility and authority to investigate claims of cyber-bullying.
"It's here. It's not going away," Chester said. "So we're going to have to figure out how to deal with this, and our schools are working on this as we speak."
"If it affects a student's day at school, then it's come into the school and we feel that we need to deal with that," Wittcoff said. "And we were certainly questioned initially. 'It happened outside of school. It's none of your business.' No, this student doesn't feel safe because of what happened."
During the last school year, Wittcoff forced the shutdown of a website a group of students at Annie Sullivan had created to tease one of their peers. Other students reported it to school staff. And Wittcoff responded to three other incidents involving one alleged bully. Now, under the new law, she has to keep a record of such incidents.
"So here, finding of bullying or retaliation, you check off yes or no," Wittcoff explained. With every claim, she fills out a four-page report.
"And then what are our follow-up plans? Are we going to meet with the target? Are we going to have our counselors meet with the aggressor?" Wittcoff read from the form.
Each time school administrators notify Franklin Police. In last year's case, police investigated but did not file charges.
Reporting Incidents Of Bullying
Psychologist Elizabeth Englander, who helped train Wittcoff, runs the Massachusetts Aggression Reduction Center at Bridgewater State University. It provides free bullying prevention training sessions for educators, like one she gave last week for all teachers in Everett.
"Let's think about how we define reporting," Englander said to the group of 500. "Talking to people, not keeping it a secret."
One thing she makes clear: the law allows districts to determine how to train their faculty and staff, and how to implement social and emotional learning for students.
She said she's heard, anecdotally, that bullying reports have risen dramatically under the new law, but those numbers don't paint an accurate picture.
"Bullying is over-reported," Englander explained. "In other words, many incidents are reported as bullying when they're not actually bullying. They don't meet the criteria laid out in the law."
They have to amount to a pattern of targeted behavior, not one incident.
A commission formed under the law, chaired by Attorney General Martha Coakley, has recommended the Legislature amend the statute to require school districts to forward their number of bullying reports to state education leaders annually.
Englander said she fears that would lead some districts to minimize actual bullying so as to not look bad. Commissioner Chester calls that a realistic concern.
"But on the other hand, we need a way to track not only how often we're dealing with bullying incidents, but our effectiveness in dealing with those incidents," Chester countered.
Englander said the best way to do that is to survey students anonymously, as her center has done and hopes to do again with the state's help.
Back at Annie Sullivan Middle School, Wittcoff said even with the new law in place she worries about not learning of a student who is a target of bullying.
"I mean, that stress is there. That stress is there for educators in a lot of different areas," Wittcoff said. "You do worry. You worry about that one student you may miss, that one student who's in crisis who may do something to hurt himself or herself."
But she said the increased awareness among teachers, students and parents gives her as much peace of mind as possible. And she's glad that heightened awareness is now law.
This program aired on September 23, 2011.