READING, MA — The bullying started in elementary school for Jeremy Bowman. It became “systemic” at Coolidge Middle School, his mother said, following him as he tried to eat lunch, hang out at his locker, or go on social media.
In 2016, Jeremy, then 14, reported the harassment. He told police he was bullied over Snapchat, in text messages, and at school. He recounted being shoved into his locker, made to pick up food off the floor in front of other students, and having his headphones stolen from his locker and his desk.
It was the first of nine police reports the Bowman family would file with the Reading Police Department over two years. It also began a frustrating journey for the Bowman family in their effort to protect Jeremy from bullies, which culminated in him being treated for post-traumatic stress disorder.
After the lunchroom incident, Coolidge Principal Sarah Marchant put a “safety plan” in place under Reading Public Schools’ bullying policy to keep the students involved away from Jeremy. It didn’t help; Jeremy told police one of the students threatened to fight him after being told of the safety plan.
As for the stolen headphones, Marchant said they had been returned and called their disappearance a “joke,” according to the police report.
Jeremy graduated from the middle school that year and sought relief by transferring to Northshore Academy in Beverly. A psychiatrist at Massachusetts General Hospital wrote at the time that his generalized anxiety disorder, which he had struggled with for a decade, had worsened amid the bullying and “ultimately affected his ability to learn and progress socially as would be expected of someone his age.”
A social worker that Jeremy had been seeing for about nine months concurred: “The bullying has caused Jeremy to experience extreme anxiety,” she wrote.
But Jeremy’s problems continued. From October to December 2016, the family filed three more police reports, in which Jeremy reported still being harassed by Reading students over the phone and through Instagram. Police offered to file harassment charges against the teen who sent him threatening Instagram messages, but the Bowmans declined.
The reports indicate that officers twice spoke to the boys who were believed to be involved. One denied involvement and the other was advised not to contact Jeremy again.
In early 2017, the Bowmans told police that a group of four teenagers, including one believed to be involved in a previous incident, harassed their son as he and a friend walked to the Birch Meadow ice rink. One of the boys tried to goad Jeremy into a fight, according to the police report. Jeremy and his friend decided to leave and were heckled as they walked home, he told police.
At this point, Jeremy’s mother, Lisa, emailed Reading schools Superintendent John Doherty, telling him that despite transferring schools, her son still felt unsafe in the Reading community. Doherty wrote back that he spoke with three Reading police officers, including the school resource officer and chief, who would reach out to her with recommendations.
Two more police reports were filed that spring regarding continued phone harassment and cyberbullying. A third report, filed in April 2017, indicated that a teen yelled an obscenity at Jeremy as he jogged with the track team. Bowman said Jeremy felt unsafe to participate in extracurricular activities after that.
The Bowmans remained in contact with Doherty, Reading Memorial High School Assistant Principal Mike McSweeney and the Reading Police Department over the next few months. Doherty told the family he understood their frustration and met with the police department three times about the bullying.
Reading police wrote in one of their reports that they had consulted with the Middlesex District Attorney’s Office but had exhausted all possible resources, including suggesting that Jeremy stay off social media and file a harassment prevention order in court.
Bowman said the family tried to loop in the Reading School Committee but received no response. The School Committee declined to comment for this story.
McSweeney determined that a Snapchat sent to Jeremy that summer referring to a rumor from middle school did not constitute cyberbullying. Bowman said it was the first formal letter the family had received documenting the harassment their son had reported.
“Even if the alleged aggressor was the source of the message in the screenshot, as alleged, the message, which occurred outside of school and on non-school sponsored devices, would constitute the first time he had ever interacted with Jeremy in an inappropriate manner,” McSweeney wrote in his decision. “And, as Jeremy and the alleged aggressor do not attend school together at this time, the message would not rise to the level of bullying or create a hostile environment at school for Jeremy.”
The school district upheld McSweeney’s decision on appeal.
In November 2017, Jeremy told police he was walking by Castine Field with a friend when a group of teenagers from Reading and Wakefield circled and bumped them in an effort to intimidate them. Police spoke to the teenagers believed to have been involved and informed the Wakefield Police Department about the report.
Reading Memorial High School opened another bullying investigation and met with the students named in the police report. Emails between Lisa Bowman and McSweeney show the assistant principal sent questions to her because Jeremy’s psychiatrist advised that it could be traumatic for him to be interviewed by school officials.
After answering the questions about the investigation, Lisa received no response.
She told Patch she felt as if the family had been left to fend for themselves. The bullying forced Jeremy to transfer again in 10th grade to a private school in Rhode Island, and the family bought a second house in that state from which to commute. They’ve spent thousands of dollars on therapy, advocates and attorneys, Bowman said.
In effect, she said, the family has been told, “You’re on your own.”
She said the family is seeking the help of the district attorney’s office, which could not confirm whether an investigation is open. No criminal charges have been filed.
Doherty shared Reading’s latest anti-bullying policy with Patch. He declined to comment on Jeremy’s case, citing privacy issues.
The policy, developed in 2018, is worded as follows:
“Bullying” is the repeated use by one or more students or by a member of a school staff including, but not limited to, an educator, administrator, school nurse, cafeteria worker, custodian, bus driver, athletic coach, advisor to an extracurricular activity or paraprofessional of a written, verbal, or electronic expression, or a physical act or gesture, or any combination thereof, directed at a target that:
– causes physical or emotional harm to the target or damage to the target’s property;
-places the target in reasonable fear of harm to him/herself, or of damage to his/her property;
– creates a hostile environment at school for the target;
– infringes on the rights of the target at school; or
– materially and substantially disrupts the education process or the orderly operation of a school.
“Cyber-bullying” means bullying through the use of technology or any electronic communication, which shall include, but shall not be limited to, any transfer of signs, signals, writing, images, sounds, data or intelligence of any nature transmitted in whole or in part by a: wire, radio, electromagnetic, photo-electronic or photo-optical system, including, but not limited to, electronic mail, internet communications, instant messages or facsimile communications.
An investigation into a report of bullying must be completed within 15 days, the policy says. During that time, the administration is to interview students, staff and any witnesses to the reported bullying. An investigation may be extended beyond 15 days to allow for availability and cooperation of witnesses, the complexity of the investigation, school vacation periods and the involvement of law enforcement.
Failure to cooperate with an investigation can result in disciplinary action, according to the policy. Administrators are to determine an appropriate punishment for the bully if evidence is substantiated and take steps to ensure the safety of the victim at school. This can include increasing adult supervision where bullying has been known to occur and developing a safety plan.
The district holds annual staff training on recognizing and preventing bullying, as well as anti-bullying curricula tailored to specific grade levels. It also offers parent education programs and notifies families about current bullying prevention curricula.
“I want to assure the members of the Reading community that we respond comprehensively and appropriately each time a complaint is brought to our attention,” Doherty said.
Doherty told Patch the district takes bullying investigations “very seriously.” If an incident happens in school or there is a connection back to the schools — what the district refers to as a “nexus” — the Reading Public Schools has jurisdiction. If the aggressor is not a student or the bullying happens outside of the school day or off school grounds, the district has limited jurisdiction, Doherty said.
Lisa Bowman feels the policy has “no teeth” in it.
“I would’ve wanted to see them put a stop to it and these kids would suffer the consequences,” she told Patch. “Obviously, they weren’t, because it kept going from one kid to the next, systemically.”
She said she was frustrated administrators did not determine that Jeremy had been bullied.
“If you have top-level people who are not calling it bullying, how is anyone going to take it seriously?” Bowman said.
Ross Ellis, founder and CEO of the nonprofit STOMP Out Bullying, described the Massachusetts anti-bullying law as “brilliant.” The law, passed under Gov. Deval Patrick in 2009, defines bullying, cyberbullying and retaliation and requires districts to create their own policies that establish a process for reporting and investigating bullying, educate students and staff about bullying and provide counseling to both victims and aggressors.
Reading’s policy aligns with the state requirements, but Ellis said enforcement rarely happens at the local level. When it comes to cyberbullying in particular, Ellis feels many districts throw up their hands.
“A lot of schools take the stance that ‘it didn’t happen on our campus so it’s not our problem,'” Ellis said.
Much of the bullying Jeremy experienced is not uncommon, Ellis said. She described Snapchat as a “playground” for bullying activity and recalled a case in which a teen received 35 different texts in five minutes, changed the phone number and still got harassed.
Kids can be very persistent, so “it’s up to the school to enforce it,” Ellis said. “I’m so disappointed with many schools across the country because they do not enforce it, so what protections do our kids have?”
Outside of the Reading school district, local law enforcement had certain limitations under the state’s harassment law. A victim of bullying may obtain a harassment prevention order if someone has committed three or more acts determined to be willful and malicious; if the acts were aimed at the victim; and if the acts caused the victim fear, intimidation, abuse or damage to property or were done with that intent, according to state law.
Police reports filed by the Bowmans show several incidents involving multiple teenagers, sometimes from other towns. Though police suggested the family try to obtain a harassment prevention order, the reports indicate they could not tie anyone to three separate cases of harassment.
Ellis said “police departments aren’t going to do anything” other than speak to the people involved, which Reading police did on multiple occasions, according to the police reports.
The primary responsibility lies with the school district, but many “don’t want bad press, don’t want to lose funding — so instead of protecting the students, they’re protecting themselves,” Ellis said.
Jeremy is now being treated for post-traumatic stress disorder. A social worker diagnosed him, writing that Jeremy was “severely traumatized during his time spent at Coolidge Middle School and also occurred for a significant amount of time in the Reading community.”
Bowman said she hopes Jeremy’s therapy will get him to a “better place.”
“We hope that no family has to go through this again.”
As part of a national reporting project, Patch has been looking at society’s roles and responsibilities in bullying and a child’s unthinkable decision to end their own life in hopes we might offer solutions that save lives.
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Selected stories from The Menace of Bullies project