Specialists say bullies also need attention

Accused teenager at Groton School committed suicide

Hunter Rogers Perkins killed himself in South Riding, Va. Hunter Rogers Perkins killed himself in South Riding, Va.
By Shelley Murphy
Globe Staff / November 29, 2010

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At a time when a new state law has put the burden squarely on schools to investigate and crack down on bullying, the headmaster at the Groton School swiftly ousted a 16-year-old sophomore last month after the youth and two other students allegedly posted photos of a classmate on the Internet with sexually explicit remarks.

Six days later, the ousted student, Hunter Rogers Perkins, shot himself to death in the basement of his father’s home in South Riding, Va.

His Oct. 11 suicide has brought intense scrutiny of the elite boarding school in Groton and how the situation was handled.

Antibullying specialists said school officials have to put the safety of victims first, but they also need to focus more on the accused bullies. Banishing them from school, they said, is generally not the best way to deal with the problem.

“Expulsion is not the way to go; it’s harmful,’’ said Barbara Coloroso, a specialist on bullying and author of a number of books, including “The Bully, the Bullied, and the Bystander.’’ “Instead of coming down heavy, they need to come up with a decent plan that holds bullies accountable, holds bystanders accountable, and keeps the targets safe.’’

Coloroso said schools should institute “restorative justice,’’ which supports victims and helps them stay safe while teaching bullies about the impact of their actions and giving them “the opportunity to make right what they’ve done . . . to own what you did and then attempt to fix it.’’

Recently there has been a spate of suicides by bullied students. Students who have been bullied, then have also bullied others, are at a high risk of hurting themselves, she said.

Dr. Elizabeth Englander, a psychology professor at Bridgewater State University who founded the Massachusetts Aggression Reduction Center, said schools are often in a no-win situation when it comes to allegations of bullying.

“When their children are victims, parents want schools to be very authoritative, take control, and remedy the situation,’’ said Englander, whose group provides antibullying training statewide. Yet, she added, parents also undercut the authority of schools by challenging authorities when they discipline their children for bad behavior.

“If your child breaks a rule, they have to own the fact they broke a rule and take the consequences,’’ Englander said.

Englander and Coloroso said it’s important for school officials to investigate allegations of bullying thoroughly to determine the role each student played, then try to discipline them in a way that helps them and holds them accountable.

“I think what the lesson has to be is we have to stop focusing on the good guys and the bad guys and that the good guys are totally innocent and the bad guys are totally guilty,’’ Englander said. “If we want to avoid children committing suicide, we need to connect with them to understand what’s going on with them and help them.’’

In a telephone interview from his Virginia home, Walter T. Perkins said school officials at the Groton School overreacted to a prank and failed to show any compassion to his son.

He accused the school of pushing his son over the edge by punishing him too harshly and ignoring the impact on the teenager, who had depression and had previously complained of being bullied.

Richard B. Commons, the headmaster, declined to comment on the bullying allegations or the ongoing investigation into alleged bullying at the school by the Middlesex district attorney’s office.

But he released a statement that said he told students about the suicide during a chapel service last month, and, “Through prayers, hymns, tears, and grieving, those present expressed what this boy meant to us. We mourn his loss as we continue to ensure the health and well being of all those in our care. This boy and his family continue to be in our thoughts and prayers.’’

Perkins said his son was one of three students accused of putting doctored images of a classmate on the Internet with sexually explicit, antigay remarks and that Commons characterized it as a hate crime, bullying, and harassment.

Perkins said his son “messed up’’ but did not intend to hurt anyone, and had been bullied weeks earlier when students called him antigay slurs because he put pink streaks in his hair to support breast cancer awareness.

He said his son, who had been at the Groton School for three years, was warned that if he didn’t withdraw, he would be expelled and it would appear on his record. He said the other two boys were suspended but allowed to return to school.

In an Oct. 5 posting on his Facebook page, Hunter Perkins wrote, “I’m leaving. Don’t know when or how, but I know why and that doesn’t make it any better. Good bye.’’

Perkins said his son had one prior infraction at the school, for lying by saying he skipped class to go to the infirmary, when he was talking with his girlfriend. The teenager was on medication for depression and attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, and had received psychiatric treatment last year for purposely cutting himself, the father said.

Perkins said his son wanted to fight his expulsion and present evidence to the school that many classmates had been “carrying on worse than him’’ in postings on MySpace and Facebook, but the father urged him to find another school. He said his son killed himself after they fought over what he should do.

Middlesex District Attorney Gerard T. Leone Jr. said his office learned of the bullying allegations from media inquiries after Perkins’s suicide, and is investigating whether criminal charges should be brought against any students.

He said the school is cooperating with prosecutors. The Groton School did not alert authorities to the recent case, according to police and prosecutors.

A new state antibullying law — enacted in May following the suicides of two alleged victims of bullying, 15-year-old Phoebe Prince in South Hadley and 11-year-old Carl Joseph Walter-Hoover in Springfield — requires teachers to report bullying to administrators, who must investigate. Schools must notify police if they believe criminal charges should be pursued.

Prosecutors were at Groton last week interviewing witnesses, according to a spokeswoman for Leone’s office.

Shelley Murphy can be reached at