Bullying complaints in Boston Public Schools are on the rise, with parents from East Boston to Roslindale and schools in between saying the problems are upsetting and disrupting student learning.

District data shows more than an 80% increase in complaints to 440 so far this year, compared to the 243 complaints in 2018-2019, the last full year of in-person learning.

The recent decision to close the Mission Hill K-8 School in Jamaica Plain brought public attention to bullying, which spiraled out of control there over a decade. But complaints are festering elsewhere in the district, prompting a student-led protest at the Boston Arts Academy in Dorchester and parental criticism of behavior in a third-grade class at the Manning School, also in Jamaica Plain.

"We just could not get anywhere with the most basic interventions for what our son was experiencing," said parent Sharon Daura, who said her Latino third-grader with autism was bullied at the Manning. "I also feel like I'm so tired of trying to guess, you know, at why people won't act."

BPS said it has official protocols and abundant strategies in place to prevent bullying and make schools welcoming. How schools handle bullying — or don’t — is critical. Decades of research has made clear that a safe and orderly school environment is foundational to student learning. If bullying takes hold, it can affect not only the students directly involved, but also other kids who live in fear that they might become a target.

Daura's experience is a prime example of the confusion and disruption that bullying and allegations of bullying can cause. In her case, the district issued two reports about her complaint, one that substantiated bullying occurred and another that did not. The principal has left the school as a result of the conflict and the school is currently overseen by an assistant superintendent from the central office.

Daura said her son, who has been teased or ignored entirely by a group of boys he desperately wants to like him, now has trouble sleeping, complains of stomach aches and migraines and doesn’t want to go to school anymore.

“It’s been devastating,” Daura said. “He didn’t want to present his work at school. … He started talking about, ‘maybe it’s because my skin is brown and I shouldn’t be Mexican anymore.’”

Elizabeth Englander, director of the Massachusetts Aggression Reduction Center at Bridgewater State University, said it's not surprising to see students acting out, not just in Boston. Pandemic isolation took a toll and many students have returned to school lacking age-appropriate social skills and maturity. While data on bullying is still being collected, a recent report by the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention found that teenage mental health is in a state of crisis, with more students reporting depression, anxiety and suicidality.

“We're just going to have to sort of understand that we're going to have to spend some time focusing on mental health issues. You know, this is going to have to be the focus for a little while until these kids are kind of more stabilized,” Englander said. “I understand that everybody really is dying to focus on other things, you know, like test scores and stuff like that, but you don't wash the dishes when the house is burning down.”

Boston has its own particular set of challenges. A recent audit of Boston Public Schools by the state Department of Elementary and Secondary Education also identified bullying as a problem, saying the district's system for managing, responding to and resolving complaints is not responsive to parent concerns and doesn't support the well-being of all students. Most critically, the audit said, the system does not ensure a safe environment for all students.

"While administrators, staff, and families reported that systems were in place to support students and maintain safety at school, many families reported concerns about the lack of understanding, response, and staff training in the district around bullying," the report said, suggesting part of the problem might be attributed to a reduction of police presence in the city's schools. More anti-bullying training was recommended.

Then there is the history of the Mission School, which will close after years of bullying and sexual abuse was uncovered in a lawsuit that the district settled with parents for $650,000 last summer. That has left parents, educators and students reeling.

The school district issued a statement in response to GBH News' questions about bullying that said serious allegations are of grave concern to the superintendent and BPS.

"BPS entered a new era of transparency and accountability under the leadership of Superintendent Cassellius," the statement said. "That includes fully reviewing all incidents that are reported so that we can best support schools to ensure that they are following all relevant procedures. We will not waver on ensuring student safety and well-being. We welcome the opportunity to hear from students or families from any school who believe their concerns are not being addressed."

East Boston parent Jennifer Lopez de Finet said she's been trying to get officials to respond to the bullying of her daughter at Boston Arts Academy for about a year, even hiring a lawyer to intervene. Her daughter, Laura, and other students at the school recently organized a protest against bullying at the school, as reported by the Dorchester Reporter.

“She cries a lot, she cries at school,” Lopez de Finet said of her daughter, a senior. "She no longer is enjoying the fact that she's going to this prestigious arts academy."

The problems began about a year ago, Lopez de Finet said, when Laura inadvertently posted a comment on Instagram that was interpreted as homophobic. Lopez de Finet provided videos of a student telling her daughter, "You ain't safe," and a screen shot saying that her daughter should "get dragged," slang for getting publicly humiliated on social media.

Lopez de Finet said Laura is depressed and, as a result, her grades have suffered. She and her husband, who own an ice cream shop, hired a lawyer for $6,000 to get the school to intervene.

The costly effort got them nowhere, she said.

"The school kept saying it was handled appropriately. And it was investigated twice," she said.

School principal Anne R. Clark did not respond to requests for comment. BPS said the school has taken steps to create a better sense of inclusion among students, convening meetings with students, the Family Council and the school's board of trustees, in addition to sessions where students can come together to talk about safety and civility.

Lopez de Finet said this year, Laura tried out for and was accepted into a vocals class called "Spirituals." She was excited until she saw one of her aggressors was in the class. She dropped out, reluctantly.

Lopez de Finet said the damage has been done as her daughter prepares to graduate in a few weeks.

She's been accepted by Berklee College of Music, and "no longer has the love that she had for the arts at that school," saying she can't wait to leave.

Englander, the Bridgewater State professor and researcher, didn’t comment on the specifics of any case. But she said communication between schools and parents, especially in the age of Facetime and Zoom, is one strategy that can help blunt conflict.

“The protocol for it [bullying] is prevention,” she said. “It's very difficult to fix bullying after it's happened. It's a much better policy to try to prevent it in the first place.”

Daura, the Roslindale mother of a third-grader at the Manning School, said her Latino son was mocked, excluded and ignored by four boys, all white. She said at a school weigh-in, one of the boys poked her son’s belly, questioning his weight. She said she also saw her son trying to talk with the boys, who responded by looking through him like he didn't exist. She said she put him to bed that night as he was sobbing and asking, “Why am I invisible?”

“Yeah, that was one of the worst moments to have your child ask you why they're invisible," she said. "And I understand why he feels that way. I often feel like he's invisible as I'm trying to advocate for him."

Daura and her wife's complaints set off an investigation into the bullying claims that led to a report that found them unsubstantiated. They complained about inaccuracies and the report's lack of thoroughness to BPS headquarters, which launched another investigation. This time the complaints were substantiated. Daura’s account of the two different findings was confirmed by another party familiar with both investigations.

Daura said the subsequent inaction led her to speak out at a recent School Committee meeting. She said she could not get the school or the district to convene a meeting with the families involved. A spokesperson for BPS said the district cannot comment on individual cases.

“We spoke to bring a sense of urgency to the process,” Daura said.

Families of the other boys learned about the bullying allegations when Daura spoke publicly at the April 27 School Committee meeting. GBH News reached out to parents of two of the four boys involved but one did not want to comment on the record and one did not respond.

Two days after Daura complained publicly at the school committee, she received an email from a school saying the boys' parents had been contacted about the bullying and "acknowledging some of the missteps we made as a school."

"We are brainstorming a plan to present the knowledge on social exclusion and the evidence-based steps we can take to prevent the behaviors and intervene when we see it happening or it is reported," the email said.

Daura said the outreach occurred eight months after her initial complaint in September, hardly abating her frustration.

The problems have also created divisions at a small school with only about 150 students, most white. The controversy also led school principal Lori Clements, who was in her second year at the school, to take a personal leave before announcing her departure for good. She declined to comment on the record.

Another Manning parent said when another student called their daughter the “N-word” earlier this year, it was handled immediately and to their satisfaction. School leaders substantiated it, created a prevention plan and took restorative justice steps.

“I have a lot of trust in the school, and it makes me sad to hear these issues are going on,” that parent said. “I know families on both sides.”

Ironically, Manning is also an “inclusion” school designed to foster relationships among children with different needs.

“What I can see is that there's a lot of people who are distressed by what may or may not have gone on, and there's a lot of, just, emotions,” said Philip Lederer, whose son attends Manning. “And I think that those emotions haven't been able to heal at all, because there hasn't been any clarity on what occurred.”