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A happy school life lost to unseen tormentors

CONCORD — Isabella “Belle” Hankey says she had no enemies, no feuds. She was happy, popular, played softball. She had athletic rivals, but no one, she thought, who would ever do this.

For a year and a half, she said, she was tortured by bullies at Concord-Carlisle High School.

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“I hated walking in the halls, thinking that you could be walking by the person that hates you,” Hankey, 18, said in an interview Tuesday. “It’s terrifying. You think that it could be your friends, a stranger, anyone. The person sitting next to you in math class.”

Hankey on Monday filed a $2 million federal civil rights lawsuit against the towns of Concord and Carlisle, the Concord-Carlisle school district, and three school administrators, alleging that the school did nothing to stop the bullying, which included death threats. Instead, the suit says, there were efforts to scrub graffiti before it could be photographed, and one of the administrators allegedly destroyed evidence.

The allegations have roiled the semirural towns, known for their rolling hills, wealthy homeowners, and good schools. The school system issued a statement Tuesday declining to comment on the suit but insisting it ensures safety for students.

JOHN TLUMACKI/GLOBE STAFF

Isabella “Belle” Hankey has filed suit against the Concord-Carisle schools.

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“We can say we take the issue of harassment very seriously, and that the district is committed to providing a safe learning environment for all of our students,” said John Flaherty, the deputy superintendent of finance and operations.

On Tuesday afternoon, high schoolers clustered in ice cream and coffee shops in Concord center buzzed about the suit, wondering how the bullying could have gone so far.

‘I hated walking in the halls, thinking that you could be walking by the person that hates you.’

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“I feel really safe in the school; I could talk to anyone if something was happening,” said Cameryn McCormack, 15, who sat eating ice cream with two friends in a little shop on Thoreau Street.

“I feel like they’re pretty protective,” added her friend, 15-year-old Cassidy Hale. “Or they try to be.”

Hankey said the bullying started in October 2011, when the car she got from her parents for a 17th birthday present was keyed. In February 2012, Hankey found her driver’s side door smeared with feces, she said.

“I was in shock. It was disgusting,” she said Tuesday. “Who is physically capable of doing something so disgusting?”

She asserts that the school administration did nothing to investigate. Less than a month later, she said she found a vulgar slur carved into her bumper outside the school. She sat down in the parking lot and cried. She was mortified – everyone could see it, she recalled thinking.

But when Hankey reported the vandalism to the school, and her parents asked for cameras to be installed, she said, they were told that cameras were too expensive. When she covered up the slur with duct tape, then-assistant principal Alan Weinstein brought a blowtorch out to the parking lot, offering to “cover it up,” she said. She said she declined.

Hankey said that as a result of the incidents, every time she walked out to her car, she was looking for graffiti. She began suffering panic attacks, she said, triggered by the smallest things: a person standing alone at the end of a hallway, giggles, whispers, eye contact with a passing stranger.

JOHN TLUMACKI/GLOBE STAFF

Belle Hankey said she was terrified that the “9:15” in this message meant someone was going to try to kill her on Sept. 15.

Superintendent Diana Rigby, who is named in the suit, told the Hankeys to stop dealing with Weinstein and instead talk with principal Peter Badalament, who is also named. But their phone calls and e-mails, they allege, often went unreturned. They hired a private investigator and outfitted their daughter’s car with cameras. The police were involved, said Hankey’s mother, but she said the family was told the school was best equipped to deal with the bullying.

The vandalism continued through May, the suit alleges, with more insults scratched into her car.

Then, in June 2012, Hankey said, she found the first death threat: “Kill Belle” carved into the bathroom wall in the high school locker room.

She pulled her knees to her chest, she said, and crouched silently on the toilet seat, too terrified to leave the stall but more terrified that if she didn’t, someone would hurt her. She sprinted outside and tried to tell a friend. But, she recalled Tuesday, she couldn’t speak.

“I couldn’t say what was on the wall,” she said Tuesday, her voice strained. “I was in shock.”

Her parents were called, but they say they were simply told by Badalament that there was little chance of Hankey being hurt. She skipped her SATs the next day.

Days later, she said, she found another threat: “Belle’s Dead at 9:15.”

Badalament reached out to the school community for answers, but the suit alleges that he never followed up on the tips he received — including several about a group of girls known as the “Sexy Seven” who a concerned parent said might be involved.

But a 17-year-old Concord-Carlisle student said Tuesday that she was a member of the so-called “Sexy Seven” — which she said no longer exists — and she denied that she or any of her friends were involved in the alleged bullying.

“I have absolutely no idea who did it,” the teen said Tuesday.

At the time, she said, the rumor mill churned out the names of the seven girls, and she said they were questioned repeatedly by the administration. But the bullying Hankey was suffering scared all the girls in the school, she said.

“We could be walking around school with someone who did this, and nobody knows,” she said. “It’s been two years this fall and it’s unbelievable that no one knows. . . . When the death threats started happening, I saw girls going into the office all the time saying, ‘I don’t know if I feel safe in here.’ ’’

Meanwhile, Hankey was missing school from the stress. She applied for an alternative program called Rivers and Revolutions, which would allow her to attend classes in the fall in a separate building from the main high school.

The summer was quiet, and Hankey hoped that her tormentors had grown bored. But two weeks before school started, she said, she found the word “Ready?” carved into her car.

She spent the first half of her senior year at Rivers and Revolutions, but she said the harassment did not stop. She said she was terrified that 9:15 meant September 15th, and thought someone was going to try to kill her. She kept finding messages, including her name in a circle with a line through it, on school walls, she said. Cameras were installed in the school parking lot, the suit says, at a cost to the district of more than $125,000, but there were still no answers.

In October, Hankey was hospitalized with what her suit alleges was a stress-induced blood clot in her leg. She suffered a pulmonary embolism – a sometimes fatal medical emergency – and was hospitalized again, the lawsuit says.

“I thought she was going to die,” Hankey’s mother, Debra Hankey, said Tuesday, as she began crying. “Just total fear.”

Hankey spent two weeks out of school, writing letters she never sent to her bullies. To this day, she does not know who they were.

She graduated in June, and plans to attend the University of Mississippi.

The suit, she said, is her way of protecting others from enduring what she did.

“I’m definitely still carrying it with me,” she said. “Hopefully this will help me have some closure on it.”

Evan Allen can be reached at evan.allen@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @evanmallen.
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