Mitt Romney has said he does not recall cutting the hair of a crying classmate who had been pinned down by other students - an incident described by some of his other classmates who said they remain disturbed by the memory 47 years later.
While some observers have expressed doubt that anyone could forget such a dramatic episode, one activist who has studied bullying said he believes Romney may, in fact, have no recollection.
Teenagers who bully others often don't remember the incidents because they weren't traumatic for them, said Don Gorton, chairman of the Anti-Violence Project of Massachusetts, a nonprofit group that seeks to reduce violence against gays and lesbians.
"Empathy is the critical variable,'' Gorton said. "If they don't feel their victims' pain, the episode won't stand out. It wasn't a big deal for them.''
The story of Romney leading a "prep school posse'' to cut the student's dyed blond locks in 1965 has sparked debate across the political world since the Washington Post first reported on it Thursday.
The Post, describing the recollections of five of Romney's high-school classmates, reported that the student, John Lauber, was "perpetually teased for his nonconformity and presumed homosexuality.'' Lauber, who died in 2004, came out as gay years after high school.
Romney has responded by saying that although he can't remember the episode involving Lauber, he is sorry if he hurt anyone at Cranbrook, a prestigious prep school in Michigan.
"Back in high school, I did some dumb things, and if anybody was hurt by that or offended, obviously I apologize for that,'' Romney said in an interview on Fox News Radio on Thursday. "I participated in a lot of hijinks and pranks during high school, and some might have gone too far, and for that I apologize.''
Romney has also said he did not know that Lauber was gay.
"I certainly don't believe that I thought the fellow was homosexual,'' Romney said. "That was the furthest thing from our minds back in the 1960s.''
Some political strategists said the incident could hurt Romney at a time when many voters are just beginning to learn about him, and the Obama campaign is working hard to define him as out of touch and insensitive.
The episode also emerged just after President Obama declared his support for gay marriage and the president's campaign depicted Romney's opposition to such unions as evidence of intolerance.
"The longer this drags on, the worse off it is for Mitt Romney,'' said Ford O'Connell, a Republican political strategist who worked on the McCain-Palin campaign in 2008. "He cannot go down these rabbit holes right now because he has not yet fully defined himself for the American voter.''
Romney's response - that he can't remember the episode, but is sorry for any harm he may have caused - "doesn't make him look good, but it does get this over with quicker,'' O'Connell said.
Dan Schnur, another Republican political strategist, also praised Romney's handling of the episode.
"It's an impossible story because you're not only relying on several-decades-old memories but trying to distill several-decades-old motives, as well,'' he said. "So if you start with the fact that it's an impossible story to beat back, the campaign has done a pretty effective job of minimizing it.''
Gorton, however, said he was offended that Romney described the episode as typical high school hijinks, even though an 18-year-old Romney was reportedly using scissors to cut Lauber's hair as Lauber screamed for help.
"I wish he had said nothing,'' Gorton said. "The fact is, high school pranks are whoopee cushions and wedgies. This was assault and battery with a dangerous weapon.''
Gorton and other gay-rights activists in Massachusetts said the episode made them recall how Romney disbanded the Governor's Commission on Gay and Lesbian Youth and the Governor's Task Force on Hate Crimes - two panels that sought to combat bullying and were created under a previous Republican governor.
"It is relevant to judge him for his record in office and he was lackluster, to put it kindly, in his efforts to fight bullying when he was governor,'' said Gorton, who was cochairman of the Task Force on Hate Crimes when it was disbanded in 2003.
Romney has said he ended the panels to save money, although at the time he was facing protests from socially conservative activists who saw them as advocating for an immoral lifestyle.
As for Romney's behavior in high school, Schnur said he was reluctant to read too much into it.
"There probably aren't very many people who would want to be judged by how they conducted themselves in high school, including both Mitt Romney and Barack Obama,'' he said.
Cheri Jacobus, also a Republican political strategist, dismissed the entire episode, saying it was "hyped-up and manufactured by the Democrats.''
"I think the public has had enough,'' she said.
Michael Levenson can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.