He's a seventh-grader at Tripp Middle School in Turner, active in sports and school plays, friends would say a nice guy. And nearly every day classmates called him "fag," "faggot" and "queer." Nearly every day someone punched him, at least one time in the crotch. Nearly every day he was ridiculed, harassed, bullied.
Amanda Fields had never seen anything like it in all of her 13 years.
"Random people. People he doesn't even talk to would come up to him and say, 'Hey, fag' or just kind of use very not good language," the eighth-grader said.
The boy is a friend of hers. For months she watched his torment and feared for his safety. She worried he'd hurt himself if the harassment got too much. Then, one day this spring, she and a small group of friends told a guidance counselor about all of it. The bullies — more than five, Amanda believes, and less than 15 — were suspended.
Citing student privacy concerns, school administrators refused to talk about the situation or confirm the suspensions. The boy and his parents declined to speak publicly. Other Tripp Middle School students wrote about the incident online, but would not talk about it to the newspaper.
But Amanda would. She agreed to tell the story that started out as the boy's and has rapidly become her own.
Because since she and her friends told the guidance counselor, Amanda's gotten bullied, too.
Amanda met the boy early in the school year. They were in a school production together and both played sports after school. He was outgoing, talkative, nice. He reminded Amanda of her little brother.
Slowly, she started noticing a disturbing trend: Other kids harassed him.
After nine years in school Amanda was familiar with teasing and taunting — "one person does something, another kid says something and, you know." She saw it all the time on the bus and in the classroom. This felt different.
"I began to see how serious the impact is. I had never really been a friend with anybody who got bullied or teased or called names or punched or kicked or anything. It kind of made me see more of what people actually do and the impact they have," she said. "It was firsthand and it was upfront and I knew the person a little bit better than the other people who get bullied or teased every day."
The boy didn't return the name-calling and didn't tell a teacher. He was afraid the bullying would get worse if he showed that it bothered him.
"He just kind of kept it to himself and tried not to talk about it too much," Amanda said.
But the situation got worse anyway. Name-calling turned into threats of violence. Threats of violence turned into actual violence. Once, in the cafeteria, Amanda watched a boy punch her friend as he went to dump his tray. Another time, also while they were at lunch, she saw someone punch him in the crotch. Amanda stood up to the bullies, told them to stop. It didn't seem to help.
As the school year went on, Amanda's outgoing friend turned quiet and withdrawn.
"He wasn't him anymore," Amanda said.
She worried about him, especially after learning that a Massachusetts student, 15-year-old Phoebe Prince, had killed herself after months of alleged bullying.
"I was like, 'Oh my gosh, that's almost exactly where this might go if it's not stopped,'" Amanda said.
Soon after, a member of the school's Civil Rights Team, a group designed to combat violence, prejudice and bias in schools, read a quote during school announcements. The message — "If no one else will stand up with you, then stand up alone and you might make a difference" — resonated with Amanda.
"I kind of thought, you know, if maybe even other people will stand up with me, then we can make a difference and not save the whole school but save this one kid," she said. "And maybe the message will get out to everyone."
With a small group of friends who had also seen the bullying, Amanda went to a guidance counselor.
Tripp Middle School policies prohibit bullying and harassment. When a student is accused of bullying, administrators investigate, talk with the students involved and make a decision: It happened or it didn't. If it happened, consequences vary depending, in part, on the severity of the bullying and whether it's a repeat offense. Consequences range from community service within the school to detention, suspension and expulsion. In the most severe, most violent cases, police may be called.
In this instance, according to Amanda, several students were suspended after an investigation. She believes more than five were asked to leave school for between two and 10 days, though school rumors put the number of suspended students at closer to 15. The school's principal would not confirm any number.
Amanda said her seventh-grade friend wasn't pleased that she told a guidance counselor about his situation. But during the suspensions, she said, his school life got a lot better. The violence and harassment disappeared, even if many of the remaining students weren't exactly friendly.
"He kind of lets me know it's getting better. But at the same time, people aren't even looking at him anymore," she said. "It's, 'Don't say something in front of him because somebody might tell.' That whole kind of game that people play."
Although her friend's situation was getting better, Amanda's got a lot worse.
Amanda had reported the bullying anonymously, but it didn't take long for someone to find out she was involved and spread word throughout the school. Suddenly, she found herself the brunt of harassment. She's been called at least one name the Sun Journal considers too profane to print.
"It hasn't gone as far as physical or anything, but names that adults don't even say. . . bitch and whore. Mostly names that don't even apply to anything that I'm doing. Just people want to put the blame on someone," she said.
At first, Amanda regretted her decision to intervene.
"It hurts. It really does. People who I thought were my friends obviously aren't my friends now," she said.
But that initial regret didn't last long.
"I know that this kid is happier," she said. "A lot happier."
Dealing with bullying
Although Tripp Middle administrators declined to comment on Amanda's situation specifically, they said dealing with bullying is a top priority.
"If students don't feel safe — not just physically, but if they're worried about what might be said or what might happen — they're not going to be learning," said Tripp Middle's principal, Robert Kahler.
And, by all accounts, the school is following experts' recommendations when it comes to bullying.
The 350-student middle school has an active Civil Rights Team that works to engage students. The Guidance Department embeds relationship skills and bullying prevention in the curriculum. The school surveys students every year about school climate and bullying. Faculty members are taught every year about policies, laws and ways to deal with bullying — and this month Tom Harnett, assistant attorney general for civil rights education and enforcement, will talk to the system's administrators and team leaders.
When bullying is reported, administrators involve the families of both sides to discuss the situation, ensure parents are aware of what's going on, outline consequences and emphasize that retaliation won't be tolerated. But first, bullying has to be reported.
Both Kahler and Kay Slusser, principal of Turner Elementary School and an affirmative action officer for the school system, said students are encouraged to tell an adult if they see or experience harassment. Although many adults grew up with the messages "ignore it" and "don't tattle," it's no longer unusual for schools to urge students to step forward.
"You can have every adult in the school — bus drivers, custodians, teachers, administrators — doing everything right and it's not solving the problem," said Steve Wessler, executive director of the Center for Preventing Hate in Portland. "You're not solving the problem until you are empowering kids to stand up for someone else."
He founded his center on the premise that both kids and adults have the power to reduce bullying and harassment in schools. Amanda did exactly what he advises students across the country to do: stand up for their classmates.
"Everyone should have a friend like her," he said after learning about Amanda's situation.
Still, after going through it, even Amanda isn't sure what the ultimate solution is.
"It’s so hard to come up with an answer because kids have minds of their own. People have minds of their own," she said.
But even though Amanda has taken flak from some classmates, her family is proud of what she did.
"I quite honestly think it's really awesome," said Amanda's mother, Marie Fields. "I work with people with developmental disabilities and so often you see these people who are ridiculed and teased or made fun of. I'm glad she's feeling she can stand up and single herself out and fight for what she believes in."
Amanda has gotten some support online, as well. She's talked about the incident on her social networking pages and some friends have e-mailed her to tell her she did a good thing.
In the worst period after she reported the bullying, Amanda said she tried not to let her own bullies get to her. Her mother offered to talk to school administrators if the situation got too bad and Amanda said she knew she could go back to the guidance counselor if she had to, but her reaction to bullying was, ironically, a lot like her friend's. She tried to show it didn't bother her.
"I was raised not to be hurt by words. So I'm trying the best that I can. Standing up for it still," she said.
Ultimately, she hopes things will improve for her friend. For the school. For students all over.
"The biggest thing I'd like to see happen, I don't know whether it's impossible or possible, is to see bullying kind of stop," she said.