Samuel Goldberg has been a Massachusetts criminal defense attorney for 20 years. Prior to that, he was a New York state prosecutor. He has published various articles regarding the practice of criminal law and frequently provides legal analysis on radio and television, appearing on outlets such as the Fox News Channel, Court TV, MSNBC and The BBC Network. To speak to Sam about a criminal matter call (617) 492 3000.

Assaults, Threats And Bullying In Boston Schools – Will The Law Help? (Part Two)

Yesterday, we began discussing the topic of bullying again. As if the topic were not enough, I was inspired by the Sunday Boston Globe front page article on the subject this past week. As a criminal defense attorney of some years, it is a subject that deeply troubles me. If you are a regular reader to this blog, you know that I am troubled by not only the bullies…but the response to and perpetuation of the bullying itself.

The Boston Globe article focused on a young lady from a suburb west of Boston. She shared the back-story of the bullying. It is not an unusual story. The rather brave high schooler, willing to give all details as well as have her name printed (which, due to her age, both the Globe and I have decided not to reveal), revealed the rather typical story.

Lexi had a friend before she began her new school. They had been friends since grade school. Like most friends, they had shared sleepovers, secrets, and favorite movies. Then, last summer, the friendship ended. Lexi decided that her friend was a negative influence. What happened at the start of the new school year, her former friend confirmed that belief. The first shot over Lexi’s bow was the posting of silly pictures she had taken with said former friend. They were posted on Face Book and viewed by everyone.

It would appear that the saying “Hell hath no fury like a woman scorned” goes for platonic friendships as well. As described more yesterday, this began the deluge of bullying that Lexi was to endure throughout the school year.

This is said to be a textbook case of bullying by girls, who frequently target former friends, use embarrassing photos, and criticize former friends’ looks, according to a study this year by the Massachusetts Aggression Reduction Center, a bullying research and education project at Bridgewater State College.

In Lexi’s case, the high school says it took the matter seriously. The principal told the Globe that the school addresses every report of bullying or harassment, with tactics ranging from conversations with students and parents to detentions, suspensions, and requests for police intervention.

After receiving the first reports of problems, officials called in the handful of students Lexi and her friend had said were bothering them, and called their parents, steps required under school policy Punishments followed, but not swiftly or consistently enough for the families involved. This approach did not fix the problem. As the year went on, other students joined in the harassment. “It would be very difficult to monitor or interfere with every student observed speaking with Lexi,” an administrator wrote to Lexi’s grandmother in late September. “I have asked her to report harassing behavior/remarks.”

In an interview last month about bullying in general, school officials said the problem can be thorny, even with teacher training and an active peer mediation program, because adolescents’ friendships come and go from day to day, conflicts between students often go back years, and student bystanders typically don’t want to intervene when they see bullying.

“I can’t keep it from happening in the back seat of my car, with my two kids, and here we’ve got 1,600 students,” the principal said.

Frequently, school officials said, the same students play both roles, acting as bully and victim – but they, and their parents, only see themselves as victims.

“It’s much easier for kids to see how they’re hurt than how they hurt others,” said a school administrator who oversees violence prevention.

One would expect that of kids, wouldn’t one?

Her grandmother thinks Lexi should start fresh in a new school in the fall. But Lexi, in spite of all she’s been through, isn’t sure.

She doesn’t think schools or laws can stop bullying. But she believes in something simpler: time, and patience.

She holds onto the advice one of her older friends gave her, that “nothing is forever.”

“Everything goes away,” she says. “You think it won’t end, but it will.”

Attorney Sam’s Take:

Lexi is clearly a bright and sensitive young woman.

By seeking simple “feel good” solutions, we are letting her, and many like her, down. What makes it even worse is that they know it. And so they learn not to look to us for help.

When they seek the alternative, namely, self-help, they will now find themselves in the hot seat.

As you can see from the article and yesterday’s blog, the bullying continues despite the intervention of unanimously passed legislation and “heroic” prosecutors’ indictments. The mockery, insults, name calling and even physical assaults continue.

Remember…these are kids that we are talking about. So far, have I mentioned anything that is particularly new in terms of kids’ interactions which, I hope you will agree, are not always pretty?

How about adults? What about instances that present shades of gray? As you might be able to tell from the various videos of me online, I am overweight. When I suggested to a colleague that we have lunch together some time, she informed me that she would do so when I lost weight.

She was an older woman and, from our relationship, I knew she was trying to be “motherly” and caring about health issues. However, she was also my boss. Was this basis for me to bring a claim against her for discrimination because of my weight?

This was a grown woman. An adult. An attorney, even.

What room does our laws give for nuances? What if she and I were kids? Didn’t she basically just call me “fat”? Weren’t my feelings hurt? Wouldn’t this fit into the new bullying statute?

What if Lexi, finding out her friend posted the photos, justifiably angry, went over to her former friend and started calling her names? What if this occurred in front of faculty?

Under the new law, this should trigger an investigation. The subject of that investigation would be Lexi, not her friend. With the re-vamping of the criminal statutes under the new bullying statute, it is arguable that Lexi would now be committing a crime. Once again, under the statute, the safest thing for the school to do would be to summon the police if they suspect a crime may have been committed.

Does that seem fair to you?

How about just the first posting of the pictures onto Face Book? Subject to arrest? Potentially. Cyber crime, you know.

What it comes down to is, as is now the situation with adults, children had best know better than to anger their peers. Otherwise, in this atmosphere, juvenile criminal charges can be the result…just for being kids.

I see it happen with adults every day. Do we now hold kids up to the same level?

Well, if we continue to address the issue as our legal leaders have, or blindly follow the dictates of how schools can follow the statute and cover their collective behinds, we will.

And we will continue to fail our kids. Criminal defense attorneys, however, will do alright.

Frankly, under the circumstances, I would rather not. It’s not worth the trade.

However, if such an issue befalls you given the present status quo, and you wish to discuss it with me, please feel free to contact me at 617-492-3000.

To find the original stories upon which this story is based, please go to http://www.boston.com/community/moms/articles/2010/06/20/the_agony_of_a_girl_who_just_wanted_to_fit_in/

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