When does childish taunting become systematic torment? Policies against bullying aren't always a help.
TAMPA - The 13-year-old girl falls asleep in her blue and green bedroom, the Disney Channel blaring from the television. For the moment, she feels safe in her bunk bed, snuggling with her white poodle, beneath a poster that reads "Peace Rules."
Her peace ends in the wee hours. Bear in the Big Blue House plays on the screen as Alexa Napier wakes up, sweating. She shakes off the recurring nightmare that sometimes sends her to her parents' bed for comfort.
In the dream, her face is bloodied and bruised. The group of girls she hides from at school and in her tree-lined Valrico neighborhood have finally pounded their threats into her face. "Slut," they call her.
The seventh-grader will get dressed in a few hours, put on her frosted eye shadow and head to school, a perfectly normal middle school in suburban Hillsborough County called Burns. She likes school, but she says she's afraid.
"I know they're going to beat me up. I know it."
Is Alexa Napier the victim of bullies, and a school system that hasn't looked after her?
Her parents say she is, that school officials failed her when they didn't take steps to protect her despite the district's own beefed-up policy against bullying.
For their part, school officials have remained largely silent but have indicated Alexa is simply a participant in an ongoing schoolgirl squabble.
What did - or didn't - happen to Alexa Napier?
In schools across America, it's not uncommon for children to be punched, shoved, rejected or ostracized. A major study of 15,686 public and private school students in 2001 found that nearly one-third in grades six through 10 were bullies or victims of bullies.
Researchers say bullying is less common in high school than in middle school, a time when children are defining themselves and their social order.
Boys are more likely to bully than girls, though bullies come in both genders. Boys are typically more physical, punching and choking. Girls are more indirect and emotional, manipulating friendships, giving the cold shoulder and spreading rumors.
Both bullies and victims said they suffered psychological and social problems such as depression and academic failure.
"Bullying is unhealthy," said Tonja Nansel, a researcher who wrote two major studies on bullying for the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development.
The U.S. Secret Service discovered that in about two-thirds of school shootings, the attackers felt bullied, threatened or persecuted by peers. That helped motivate the deadly violence, including the shootings at Columbine High School in 1999 where 13 died, and at Santana High School in Santee, Calif., in 2001 where two died.
"Columbine was the major event that pushed educators everywhere to take a look at this," said Liz Valdez, Hillsborough supervisor of guidance programs.
Still, some schools don't see bullying as a problem.
"I still have teachers who say, "What's all the fuss about?' " said Dr. Howard Spivak, professor of pediatrics at Tufts University School of Medicine. "That's distressing when the scientific evidence is certainly adequate to raise concerns."
Experts say schools can no longer ignore bully behavior because of the harmful effect on children and education. Spivak said they should take steps to prevent it and stop it.
"The reality is, schools have a responsibility to create an atmosphere where learning, growth and development can occur," Nansel said. "That can't happen when someone doesn't feel safe."
But how easy is it to identify bullying? When do typical taunts cross the line?
Experts agree on several main characteristics: Bullying is aggressive, intended to cause harm and often repetitive. Bullies also have more power than their victims.
One problem is identifying bullying. "Bullies don't usually do it where adults can see it," said Jan Urbanski, prevention specialist with Pinellas County schools. "Administrators can't suspend someone on hearsay."
Several states have passed laws requiring school districts to prohibit bullying. Many districts have passed zero-tolerance policies even without state mandates.
Hillsborough was one of the first in the Tampa Bay area to institute a specific prohibition on bullying, in May 2001. Pinellas and Pasco address bullying as part of overall policies on harassment.
Hillsborough's policy defines several types of bullying: emotional, verbal, physical and sexual. Behavior includes gossiping, poking, humiliating, terrorizing. Punishments range from a verbal warning to expulsion. Victims are encouraged to report offenses, not ignore them.
The policy holds school officials responsible for "taking corrective action to prevent bullying."
"We don't tolerate bullying in school," said Hillsborough deputy superintendent Randy Poindexter. "By the same token, just because somebody says someone bullied them, doesn't mean someone bullied them."
Alexa Napier's story shows that quandary: Has she been bullied by up to 13 girls for the last year, as her parents say, or is she the victim of her own actions, as the principal suggests?
"Bullying means different things to different people," says Burns principal Brenda Nolte. "Bullying is continuing to bother somebody. Bullying isn't when somebody does something and then the other person gets mad at them."
Counters Alexa's mother, Sherri Napier: "I feel like I'm sending my daughter to prison camp, not public school."
Alexa said problems started at the beginning of last year, sixth grade. She and a girl had a disagreement. "She told me I'd been saying things. Some of them I did say, but some of them I didn't say. Then, all these people I didn't know hated me."
Alexa said she tried to talk to her newfound enemies to clear her name, but nothing worked.
One afternoon in the courtyard before school, she said, they gathered in a circle around her and started calling her names. She later told her mother all she could hear was the pounding in her ears.
"I explained to her that that was her heart beating," Mrs. Napier said.
Alexa said that before the first dance of the year, the girls told her to watch out. "We're all going to be there," she said they told her.
At the dance, she said, the girls chased her. She ran into a bathroom and hid. Later, she stayed close to the assistant principal, never venturing onto the dance floor.
Attempts to reach some of the girls involved were unsuccessful. One mother declined to discuss it, saying, "They're only 13."
Alexa said books have been dropped on her head, spitwads stuck in her hair. She has been shoved into lockers, tripped on the bus, threatened with having her eyebrows cut off. She was so afraid of getting beaten up in the bathroom last year, she rarely went.
"Alexa comes home, she's crying," Mrs. Napier said. "These girls are in her face, pushing her in the hallway. . . . I can't imagine any adult doesn't intervene."
One day, Alexa met with the assistant principal. "He told me I'm too sensitive," Alexa said. " "You need to toughen up.' "
School officials would not comment. Nolte, when asked if Alexa was bullied, said: "There were some unpleasant circumstances brought to us. To classify them would be very difficult."
Alexa's parents called the school and wrote letters. They talked to the guidance counselor and met with administrators. They even called the principal's supervisor.
"They said it's a gray area," Mrs. Napier said. "It's he said, she said."
"They say someone of authority has to see it," said her husband, Keith Napier. "I asked the principal, "What do we have to do, put a wiretap on our daughter?' "
Nolte said the school has handled the situation appropriately. She would not say if the girls have gone through mediation or been disciplined.
"There are times when a situation is resolved in a way parents don't think it ought to be resolved," Nolte said.
For one week this year, Mrs. Napier said, an administrator wrote Alexa a note allowing her to leave school five minutes early to avoid the girls she said waited by her locker each day.
Several weeks ago, at the urging of the school, Mrs. Napier met with two of the girls' mothers. They defended their children and said Alexa was causing everything.
"They said she was taunting them and making them act out," said a disbelieving Mrs. Napier. "My daughter is afraid of her own shadow."
A couple of girls stopped bullying her, Alexa said, but others increased their attacks.
Then came some proof the Napiers said the school told them it needed.
One afternoon after her chat with the other mothers, Mrs. Napier begged her daughter to tell her if she was doing anything to the girls. Was she gossiping? Name-calling?
"She started to cry," Mrs. Napier said. "She said, "They're writing it on the wall.' "
Her father went to the school armed with a video camera. On a wall at the entrance, he saw his family phone number written in red. Beside it: "Slut."
The janitor removed it, but the number appeared again days later with even more explicit and humiliating words about sexual activity.
There was also a message recently left on the Napiers' answering machine. A girl's voice urged them to call her "before something ends up happening. . . . People are going to end up beating her up if she doesn't stop calling them slut and other profane names."
The Napiers played the message to the assistant principal, who they said told them he could do nothing since it didn't happen on campus - despite the school district's policy forbidding retaliation via telephone.
Last week, fearing their daughter would end up hurt, the Napiers gave up on Burns. They transferred Alexa to a nearby middle school, Mulrennan, even though it's a mile farther and they have to drive her. At least they feel she is safe, they say.
"I didn't want anything special," Mrs. Napier said. "I just wanted my daughter to be able to go the bathroom and get on the bus. We just wanted to be able to go to work and our daughter to go to school and feel safe."
- Melanie Ave can be reached at 813 226-3400 or firstname.lastname@example.org