Martha’s Vineyard schools fight back against bullying


Martha’s Vineyard Public Schools (MVPS) officials said this week they have clear-cut policies and an efficient process in place to handle bullying incidents.

“We have had an unusual number of bullying incidents over the last couple of months,” superintendent of schools James Weiss said in phone call last week. “But certainly this is not a new phenomenon, and we work hard to prevent it.”

On Tuesday, the Boston Herald reported that a 16-year-old girl at Martha’s Vineyard Regional High School (MVRHS) had been punched in the back of the head by a girl during class on April 6, and verbally threatened that a gang of girls who had been bullying her might “cut her.” The teen victim and her mother were not named.

Although Mr. Weiss would not discuss the specifics of the incident, he said the Herald article did not tell the whole story.

“There was an incident in the high school last week, and I would say that the administration and guidance staff took immediate action, both disciplinary and counseling. They worked with all the students involved, and I’m struck by the amount of work our staff does in situations that are somewhat difficult,” Mr. Weiss said.

Although the Boston Herald article reported the MVRHS student had been too afraid to return to school since the attack, Mr. Weiss confirmed she was in school on Tuesday.

In another local incident a few weeks ago, an Oak Bluffs School student was the victim of bullying by a group of four students.

Although like Mr. Weiss, Oak Bluffs School principal Laury Binney and MVRHS principal Steve Nixon would not comment on the details of the incidents, they said they acted swiftly to exact consequences.

Mr. Binney said the four students involved in the bullying incident at his school were suspended for two days. In addition, he met with their parents and explained that the process for their children to return to school would include making amends with the student they bullied.

“The parents need to know that we all have to work together to try to eliminate and extinguish this kind of negative behavior,” Mr. Binney said.

Mr. Nixon said the girl who attacked her fellow student last week at the high school was also suspended. Any physical altercation results in immediate suspension, in keeping with the school’s discipline code, Mr. Nixon explained.

Bullying incidents, whether physical altercations or not, also receive immediate attention and involve the guidance department, school adjustment counselor, and assistant principals.

Guidance director Michael McCarthy said high school counselors work with bullies and their victims, as well as the families of both, to resolve the issues. In some cases, students may be referred to counseling services outside the high school, Mr. McCarthy said.

The public schools have been working on the bullying issue at many levels, for a long time, Mr. Weiss pointed out.

“Our work at all elementary schools with Responsive Classroom and Developmental Design is targeted at establishing a culture and climate of openness, and then just about every school has some anti-bullying program in place,” he wrote in response to questions by email. “The Oak Bluffs School has a bullying congress annually; the high school has the Peer Mediators; and each school counselor has a group that targets this issue.”

And in any situation involving a physical assault at school, Island police agencies would be involved as appropriate, Mr. Weiss said.

Discussion of the Island public school system’s efforts arises in the wake of recent media attention that has heightened awareness of bullying issues, in communities statewide. The deaths of South Hadley High School freshman Phoebe Prince and 11-year-old Carl Joseph Walker Hoover of Springfield have focused attention on the problem. Each student committed suicide, after separate incidents of alleged bullying over the past year.

What parents should do if they suspect their child is the victim of bullying? School administrators agree that communication is the most critical component.

“Parents should always talk with their children about these issues, and if something happens immediately talk with their child’s teacher or the school principal,” Mr. Weiss said. “We can’t act if we don’t know of something happening.”

Mr. Nixon said bullying incidents are brought to the administration’s attention in many different ways, through reports from staff members, students, parents, and victims.

At Oak Bluffs School, Mr. Binney said, “When incidents happen, we encourage kids to report them to a teacher or their parents.”

About four years ago, Oak Bluffs School surveyed students and parents about bullying. As a result, Mr. Binney said the school created an anti-bullying committee, made up of 10 to 12 students and guidance counselors April Knight and Carmen Wilson.

“They have meetings once a week, and they talk about what’s going on, because the kids are the pulse of the school,” Mr. Binney said. “As a staff, we watch and we pay attention, but we don’t see everything.”

Both he and Mr. Nixon said another important contributor to addressing the problem is educating children about the difference between bullying and what some of them perceive as teasing. “Our role is always to define bullying from the victim’s point of view,” Mr. Nixon said.

One of the most difficult aspects of bullying is that it is often carried out in a subtle and secretive manner, which educators say is worsened with the use of current technology.

“In general, the difference now is the availability of the internet and Facebook, and all of that stuff is just so much more ever present that kids can’t get away from it in the same way they used to,” Mr. Weiss said. “You know, it used to be that you could go home and nothing would happen, because you weren’t in school. Now, it follows you on the Internet, and that’s a real issue.”

Mr. Nixon said the faceless nature of electronic communication results in children becoming desensitized to the damaging and hurtful impacts of their words.

In addition, Mr. McCarthy said, “With text messaging, a kid can get harassed very quickly by a number of kids very fast because of the technology, plus they may not even know who is bullying them.”

In response to the growing problem, last October the All-Island School Committee adopted a cyber-bullying policy (available at, in addition to existing policies regarding general harassment and sexual harassment.

Recently the state Senate and House of Representatives approved anti-bullying legislation. The two versions are currently in a conference committee.

“I always urge parents to join with schools to build a partnership that strengthens how we handle situations like those recently reported across the Commonwealth,” Mr. Weiss said. “This is a community issue, especially with the cyber-bullying aspect.”