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Students urge lawmakers to act on bullying

11 bills currently under review

Eighth grade students from the RASHI school, in Newton, took notes and wrote down questions during a State House hearing for antibullying bills. (David L. Ryan/Globe Staff) Eighth grade students from the RASHI school, in Newton, took notes and wrote down questions during a State House hearing for antibullying bills.
By Brian R. Ballou
Globe Staff / November 18, 2009

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Students, teachers, and specialists on aggressive behavior filled a State House hearing room yesterday with personal stories about bullying at school and in cyberspace and offered opinions on several antibullying bills under consideration by lawmakers.

A female student who attended Swampscott public schools said a boy taunted her relentlessly at school, to the point where she feared going back. As a result, the girl told about a dozen members of the Joint Committee on Education, her grades and her relationships with other students suffered. She ultimately left the district to attend another school.

“I was pushed out of the town I spent my whole life in,’’ the girl testified. “I found a school that I feel comfortable in, but I wonder if the school had reacted in an appropriate way, would I still be a student in Swampscott schools.’’

About 300 people attended the hearing, which ran for more than three hours.

Yesterday, a teenage boy spoke from the perspective of a reformed bully. “Last year, I was part of the problem, I was insensitive, and I treated my peers without consideration,’’ said the student, who attends the Rashi School in Newton. “I used names and jokes to make him feel smaller . . .,’’ the teen said.

When the dean of students at the private school intervened and required the student to study the effects of bullying, the teen said he stopped bullying and became compassionate.

Antibullying bills have come before the Legislature before but have been defeated. Now, a broad group of supporters, led by the Anti-Defamation League, are giving the effort the momentum it may need to push a measure to passage.

There are 11 bills under consideration. The most popular one appears to be House Bill 483, which would prohibit bullying on school grounds and at school functions and would require staff to report cases of bullying.

The committee will evaluate the testimony and other comments from supporters and opponents of the 11 bills before crafting a measure to send to the full Legislature for a vote.

Michael Sheetz, vice chairman of the ADL of New England region board of directors, said “38 states have antibullying laws, Massachusetts lags far behind.’’

He called House Bill 483 the most comprehensive of the 11, but added that it should be amended to include a provision that identifies the specific nature of the bullying, such as taunts or comments related to the victim’s race, gender, ethnicity, or sexual orientation.

Sirdeaner Walker testified that her 11-year-old son, Carl Joseph Walker-Hoover, a Springfield charter school student, hanged himself in his bedroom last April, after being bullied. Walker said students called her son gay and ridiculed his attire. .

“What could make a child his age despair so much that he would take his own life? That question haunts me today,’’ she said. “Those kids called him those names because they knew they were the most hurtful things they could say to him, and they hit their mark.’’

State Representative Martha M. Walz, who chaired yesterday’s hearing, said any bill, if enacted, would encompass charter and public schools.

Nearly a quarter of Massachusetts high school students reported being victims of bullying, while 14 percent admitted to bullying or pushing someone around, according to the state’s most recent survey of health and risk behaviors, which was released last year. In middle school, a smaller portion of students said they were bullied.

Many schools in the state have adopted policies to deal with bullying, but advocates say enforcement of those polices varies by school. The state Department of Elementary and Secondary Education does not have formal guidelines on bullying policies, but recommends prevention programs.

Northeastern University professor Jack Levin, a criminologist, testified before the committee that bullying, when left unchecked, can have tragic and violent consequences.

“Bullying should be a red flag,’’ he said. “The Virginia Tech killer [Seung-Hui Cho] was bullied and harassed, and no one offered a helping hand. The origins of the Virginia Tech massacre can be seen in the killer’s life, long before he got to college.’’