Lenox school officials assess 'sad state' of bullying that's caused some to leave the district
LENOX — Instances of bullying and harassment at Lenox Memorial Middle and High School during the past school year were severe enough to cause several students to transfer out of the district.
That was the message delivered Saturday during a candid assessment of school culture issues in Lenox schools.
"When you've got a junior crying, we're in a sad state, we really are; it's serious stuff," said School Committee member Francie Sorrentino, who also serves on the food services staff and as detention supervisor at the middle and high school and is in close touch with students who come through the cafeteria daily.
"This is not who we are; we're far better than that," she said. "I'm so disappointed. This was the worst year yet."
The incidents were detailed during the committee's annual late-summer retreat, a publicly posted meeting held in a conference room at Shakespeare & Company's Elayne Bernstein Theater. The school culture topic came up during in the final 30 minutes of the 3 1/2 hour meeting, following discussions about finances, school choice numbers, leadership, community relations and academic excellence.
"I feel like this is the most important thing we've talked about since we sat down this morning," said Anne Marie O'Brien, elected last May to the School Committee. "The fact that this is going on with adults and is being tolerated is awful."
School Committee Chairman Robert Vaughan agreed. "It's very disheartening," he said.
And it's not just students, Sorrentino noted.
"We have teachers bullying each other," she said. "You've got teachers bullying kids, kids bullying kids; this is why we have her," she said, referring to the new schools Superintendent Kimberly Merrick, who succeeded Timothy Lee as of July 1.
Merrick referenced data showing a "very low number" of students who have reported such incidents. "It suggests to me that a lot of kids are afraid to report," she said.
Since 2016, there have been two written reports on bullying episodes at Morris Elementary, she told the committee. At the middle and high school, there have been 12 incidents reported in writing.
"I know we're a small high school, but that's a very low number, and one of them was multiple on one student," the superintendent said. The reports are filed with the state Department of Elementary and Secondary Education.
"This is a common issue, and it's not unique to Lenox," Merrick said. "A lot of students are reluctant to report that they're being bullied; they have a lot of hesitation about that."
She also maintained that relaying incidents to the state is unlikely to discourage the filing of reports. "Openly and honestly, and just from experience since I can't speak for Lenox, that usually isn't the case," Merrick said, adding that the issue involves training.
Teachers may try to dissuade a student from writing a report "because they think it's the right thing for the student," she told the committee. "In all honesty, they should actually complete a report and do an investigation into all of that."
Sorrentino pointed out several incidents that involved "silly bantering or picking on a kid, rather than bullying, a very harsh word, it goes on your permanent record."
She also asserted that some parents discourage their children from writing a report.
"But it's not going to stop unless they fill out a report," she said. "So it falls by the wayside, another year goes by, it's worse, so it just snowballs. Parents look at us to be the safe haven for these kids and we try our best to create that. Even the lunch ladies try to create that."
But, she emphasized, "if a kid is afraid in sixth grade, it's not any better in 10th grade; it's worse."
Sorrentino also suggested there's a segment of community leaders that is loathe to "rock the boat" with certain families.
Molly Elliot, a School Committee member who also serves on the school culture subcommittee, questioned the definition of bullying.
"It's pretty broad, but the key is that it's repeated," Merrick replied.
At the elementary level, it's important to stop bullying types of behavior by intervening early, according to Vaughan, a former principal at Morris Elementary. "It gets tricky when it gets to middle and high school."
"We can't just throw up our hands and say we can't do it," he said.
"They [students] want us to create the environment that's safe for all kids," Vaughan said. "When it turns out that it's not safe for a kid, they're reluctant to report it. They're just trusting that we're creating the environment, and so when we hear that adults are part of the issue, that's not great."
Sorrentino pointed to the written "zero-tolerance policy, but we seem to be tolerating an awful lot."
"All this feedback is fantastic and we should circle back to this later in the year and see how we're doing," Merrick said.
Clarence Fanto can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org, on Twitter @BE_cfanto or at 413-637-2551.
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