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Kevin Cullen

Bully bill survives the grind

By Kevin Cullen
Globe Columnist / March 21, 2010

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Otto von Bismarck, Germany’s first chancellor, once suggested that the two things you don’t ever want to see being made are sausage and laws. The other day, up on Beacon Hill, they put some legislation through a sausage grinder, and it actually came out OK.

There seems to be a growing consensus that Massachusetts lacks the laws needed to combat bullying, which with the rise of Internet and text messaging has become something far more pernicious and omnipresent than the days when bullies prowled the playground with a clenched fist but without a cellphone or a Facebook account.

And when all was said and done on Thursday, every single member of the House of Representatives who voted got behind a measure that would put Massachusetts at the forefront of getting schools to change their cultures when it comes to confronting bullies and protecting the bullied.

But in a matter of hours, the bill that was approved looked a lot different from the one that came out of the House Ways and Means Committee. When it came out of Ways and Means, the guts of the bill — mandatory training for school staff and reporting of bullying incidents — had been removed. At the end of the day, it was back in and everybody was taking bows.

We know everybody was for it at the end of the day, but who was against it when the day started?

The last time I saw Brian Camenker, he was running around the State House saying that we might as well change the name of Massachusetts to Sodom or Gomorrah. He was pretty confident that the sky would fall and civilization as we know it would come to an end if the state legalized same-sex marriage.

Well, the other day, the sky was still there, and Camenker, gadfly activist, was back in the halls of the State House, telling anyone who would listen that this idea of forcing adults who work at schools to report bullying was a very bad idea. Somebody even put him on TV.

But let’s be fair to Camenker, who believes that the campaign to take bullying more seriously is, like everything else he doesn’t like, part of what he calls the homosexual agenda. At least he was willing to say publicly he was against it. So, too, was the Parents Alliance for Catholic Education, who don’t want any public oversight of their private schools.

But with two bullied kids in Western Massachusetts dead, and hundreds if not thousands of parents complaining that the schools have not taken bullying against their kids seriously enough, the others who opposed the guts of the antibullying bill were less willing to stand and be counted. They were stealth saboteurs and, for a few hours at least, they succeeded in watering down the bill to the extent that it was basically useless.

Because they had opposed previous legislative efforts, suspicion fell on the Massachusetts Association of School Superintendents. But their legislative agent, Paul Andrews, told me on Friday his organization did not oppose the bill.

“We support it,’’ Andrews said.

Representative Marty Walz, the Back Bay Democrat who has done yeoman’s work on antibullying legislation, said the superintendents’ organization may not have formally opposed it, but its members were calling senators and state reps all along, saying that the training and reporting provisions of the bill would create administrative and financial burdens they couldn’t afford. She said school committee members were doing the same.

“I’d say the schools can’t afford not to have training on bullying,’’ said Walz. “They’ve got to train cafeteria workers. They’ve got to train custodians. Some communities are going to have to spend some money. But what they’ve really got to do, which will not cost additional money, is reprioritize their professional development.’’

On Thursday morning, Charlie Murphy, the state rep from Burlington who is the very smart and able chairman of Ways and Means, was going around saying the bill was just swell without the training and reporting language. On Thursday afternoon, Murphy voted for a bill that his committee had tried to gut.

There aren’t a lot of stand-up guys on Beacon Hill. But Murphy is a stand-up guy.

“We had a caucus, and I got my teeth kicked in,’’ he said. “The members let me know, they weren’t happy with what came out. I take full responsibility. It was me.’’

Murphy says the political system worked as it should.

“There are 150 personalities in the building,’’ he said. “Things change.’’

So do bills, and this one changed back to something that could change the way we regard bullying in our schools, like the way we got more kids to stop smoking, or the way we made them think about, and suffer serious consequences in school for, underage drinking.

Bullying is killing some kids and it is killing even more kids’ souls.

Murphy’s wife is an assistant principal at a school in Lowell, and she deals with this stuff every day, and Murphy acknowledged that one of the reasons he pulled the mandatory reporting and training out is that he knows his wife doesn’t need to be mandated to confront bullying. She already does it.

But ask Anne and Jeremy Prince in South Hadley, whose 15-year-old daughter, Phoebe, killed herself, ask Sirdeaner Walker in Springfield, whose 11-year-old son, Carl, killed himself, if they think mandatory reporting and training are luxuries we can’t afford in these tough economic times.

Ask any parent whose kid has gone through this, and then ask yourself: Are we doing enough?

Kevin Cullen is a Globe columnist. He can be reached at cullen@globe.com.