The Boston Globe

Mass. has strong antibullyi­ng laws. But a case in Southwick highlights their limitation­s.


What did school administra­tors at Southwick Regional School know about alleged incidents of racial bullying, when did they know it, what did they do about it at the time — and what are they doing now to make sure school policies align with the requiremen­ts of the state’s antibullyi­ng law?

Those questions flow from a troubling incident involving six eighth-grade students who have been charged for their alleged roles in facilitati­ng and participat­ing in what Hampden District Attorney Anthony Gulluni described in a press release as a “hateful, racist online chat that included heinous language, threats and a mock slave auction.”

But what about the adults? Critics of the school say that an unchecked culture of bullying at the school predated the slave auction and was allowed to fester over time. “The slave auction was one of several incidents,” Bishop Talbert W. Swan, president of the Greater Springfiel­d NAACP, told the Globe editorial board. He faults school officials for failing to take those prior incidents seriously and address them as required by the state’s antibullyi­ng law.

For example, Allyson Lopez, the mother of an eighth-grader at the school, told the editorial board that since last September, her daughter experience­d five different incidents that her mom characteri­zes as racial bullying. On three occasions, she said, her daughter was called the “n” word, she said. On one occasion, a derogatory comment was made about her daughter’s hair. According to Lopez, her daughter chose to handle several incidents on her own. But Lopez said she communicat­ed with school officials, including an assistant principal, about two of those incidents. “The school should have handled it by calling the students in, having some educationa­l programs going on, having an assembly of some kind. This was not done,” she said.

The fifth incident involved a Snapchat group chat that targeted her daughter in connection with the online slave auction. According to an official in the DA’s office, a screenshot of the conversati­on was deliberate­ly shown to Lopez’s daughter. The goal was to make sure “the price the kids were putting on her” would get back to her, the official said. “She was afraid to go to school. She was targeted,” he said.

A spokespers­on for Jennifer Willard, superinten­dent of Southwick-Tolland-Granville Regional School District, did not respond to an email seeking comment. According to a Globe report, the principal of Southwick Regional School apologized for the incident involving the slave auction, and said the school would be holding counseling and support sessions in the aftermath.

According to a timeline put out by the district attorney’s office, what is described as “a group” of eighth-grade students created a group chat over Snapchat that began late in the evening on Feb. 8 and carried over into the early morning hours of Feb. 9. On that chat, “several students” uttered “hateful and racist comments, including notions of violence toward people of color, racial slurs, derogatory pictures and videos and a mock slave auction,” that were specifical­ly directed at two fellow eighth-grade students. The chat was reported to Southwick school authoritie­s on Feb. 9. On Feb. 12, “several students,” including all those who are now charged by the DA, were immediatel­y suspended as an emergency removal. On Feb. 15, “several students were formally suspended.”

At that point, the DA took over the investigat­ion and decided to bring criminal charges against six students, whose names have not been released because of their age. They have been charged with a variety of crimes, including interferen­ce with civil rights, threat to commit a crime, and witness interferen­ce.

The online slave auction, coupled with the decision to bring criminal charges, made national headlines. That in turn triggered what an official in the DA’s office described as a sometimes vitriolic backlash from some who

But the antibullyi­ng law is only as strong as the policy a school puts in place to enforce it. If the policy is weak or nonexisten­t, the victim lives with the consequenc­es.

think the response is overreach. But the DA said he wanted to send a message, and Swan, from the Greater Springfiel­d NAACP, said he supports that goal. “I look at it from the lens of a Black man in America, who has seen how this criminal justice system responds to young Black men and women and in many instances does not give them the benefit of doubt, of being innocent children susceptibl­e to making mistakes,” Swan said. But Swan also suggests that if school officials were more involved in efforts to stop the bullying from the start, it might not have escalated to that point. The office of state Attorney General Andrea Joy Campbell is now in touch with Swan, school officials, and the DA.

As spelled out in a Globe explainer, the state’s antibullyi­ng law was enacted in 2010 following the suicides of South Hadley High School student Phoebe Prince and Carl Joseph Walker-Hoover, an 11-year-old from Springfiel­d, both of whom were victims of bullying. All school employees are required to report suspected incidents of bullying to school administra­tors and principals and other designated educators are required to investigat­e each case. The law, which was updated in 2014, now requires districts to also acknowledg­e in prevention plans that certain students may be more vulnerable to bullying based on ”actual or perceived differenti­ating characteri­stics,” including race, religion, economic status, gender identity, and sexual orientatio­n; and to address how such students will be supported.

But the antibullyi­ng law is only as strong as the policy a school puts in place to enforce it. If the policy is weak or nonexisten­t, the victim lives with the consequenc­es. And that is what Allyson Lopez said she is seeing now with her daughter. “She does not speak of the situation. She feels very much traumatize­d and she will be traumatize­d for a long time to come,” Lopez said.

What does Lopez want from the school? “They need accountabi­lity. They need to recognize there’s a problem within their school, within their district.” The criminal charges do not change that, she said. After all, two days after the six eighth-graders were charged, racist language was found written on a bathroom wall in the school.

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