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Pushing back

Bolstered by a new state law addressing bullying, schools move to educate staff, students on responding to aggression

Olavio Bisneto, of Everett, interacts during exercises at a seminar in Bridgewater Olavio Bisneto, of Everett, interacts during exercises at a seminar in Bridgewater
By Christine Legere
Globe Correspondent / May 13, 2010

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For the longest time, bullying has fallen into the “kids will be kids’’ category, a negative yet somewhat unavoidable part of growing up. But following the suicides of Carl Joseph Walker-Hoover, a Springfield 11-year-old who took his own life last year after being bullied, and Phoebe Prince, the 15-year-old Irish immigrant in South Hadley who hanged herself in January after weeks of harassment by fellow students, educators, parents, and lawmakers are finally saying “No more.’’

Last week, Governor Deval Patrick signed one of the strongest legislative measures in the country against bullying behavior in schools, mandating training for faculty and students, and requiring that parents be informed of incidents. School employees must report suspected bullying to principals for investigation, whether it occurs on school grounds, bus rides, or at school-sponsored events. And school officials must also take action against student bullying via e-mail or through social networking sites like Facebook, since conflicts on the Internet can create a hostile environment at school.

Although bullying is still not categorized as a criminal act, aggressive bullying can now be dealt with legally under laws against stalking and harassment.

According to data gathered by Bridgewater State College professor Elizabeth Englander, founder of the Massachusetts Aggression Reduction Center, a large percentage of youngsters experience some form of bullying while growing up.

Englander surveyed college students last year, asking whether they had ever been bullied in high school. About 32 percent said they were frequently bullied, and another 43 percent said they had been bullied sometimes. Sixty percent said they had been bullied via Instant Messaging, social networking sites, text messages, or other electronic means. Nearly 40 percent knew of students who were bullied so severely they left school. And 80 percent of the respondents said they were not aware of any anti-bullying program in place in their school districts, a surprising response, since most districts have some form of policy in place, says Englander.

The Aggression Reduction Center has been overwhelmed in the past few months with requests for training for educators, parents, and students. “Our biggest problem right now is capacity, because the demand is so great,’’ said Englander, who calls the new state law a step in the right direction because it covers training for educators, concrete policies for schools, programs for students, and education for parents.

The center recently held its annual Youth Summit to raise awareness of bullying and cyber-bullying and to challenge students to come up with creative solutions to the age-old problem. Younger students fashion posters with messages that encourage respect, while the older ones create public service messages on the issue.

The center, the Massachusetts School of Professional Psychology, and the state Department of Elementary and Secondary Education have scheduled several workshops this summer for school administrators statewide to help them draft new policies and procedures against bullying, put together sample memoranda of understanding between schools and local police, and produce ways to deal with the challenges of cyber-bullying.

Students, parents, and educators in Southeastern Massachusetts, meanwhile, have stepped up their own efforts to address bullying behavior.

The Foxborough School District is reviewing its policies and procedures, while continuing to deal with a potentially serious bullying situation recently reported at its Ahern Middle School, where the parent of a 13-year-old student said her daughter had to be hospitalized last month because of stress related to bullying.

“It began when a new girl joined Emily’s circle of friends two years ago,’’ said parent Carla Carey. “At first she would just pick arguments with my daughter. Then it escalated to making fun of her in front of her friends.’’ Most recently, Carey said, the girl circulated a secret she knew about Emily and made harassing phone calls to her during her birthday party.

The school system and local police are investigating the situation, said Carey.

“I had been aware of the problem, but when that tragedy happened to [Phoebe Prince], I started watching my daughter more closely because I saw how serious it could get,’’ Carey said. Emily has now returned to school, and as part of a “safety plan’’ for her return, school administrators agreed to change the seats of all students in a class where she allegedly was bullied, so no student was singled out.

Carey said she hopes the mandates recently signed by the governor, as well as the district’s ongoing efforts to tighten anti-bullying policies, will be promptly and properly implemented so situations improve for students like her daughter.

“You can put anything down on paper, but it’s still just rhetoric,’’ she said. “It all sounds good, but let’s see how it translates into actual change.’’

Foxborough School Superintendent Christopher Martes said a new task force comprising local educators, police, parents, students, and community members will meet for the first time next week to work on anti-bullying measures. And tonight, the school and police departments and several community groups will sponsor a presentation by Englander’s organization called “What Parents Need to Know About Bullying and Cyber-bullying’’ at 7 p.m. at Foxborough High School.

In Canton, a group called the Ninth Grade Community Problem Solvers Team has been working for the past seven months to raise awareness of bullying in the community and produce solutions. This month, the group, which chose the issue as its yearly project last fall, will sponsor a “No Name-calling Week’’ at the high school, air public service announcements produced by its members, and talk to fifth-graders about the seriousness of bullying, as they prepare to enter middle school. The problem solvers will also meet with school administrators to review the district’s anti-bullying policy.

Kyle Hanscom, a member of the problem solvers team, said a visit from author and anti-bullying expert Barbara Coloroso had a big impact on group members. “She told us the power is with the bystander,’’ Hanscom said. “In order to feel powerful, the bully has to have their posse. If you’re the bystander, you’re still at fault for not helping. If people stand up and say, ‘That’s wrong,’ they’ll back down.’’

One bystander who did get involved made a significant difference in Bridgewater for a middle school student with Down syndrome who suffered chronic teasing on the school bus, the victim’s parents say.

“Since a month into school, my husband, Nick, and I knew Brian wasn’t acting normally,’’ Kathy Palmieri said of her 13-year-old son. “Then we get a call from a child who says Brian is being bullied on the bus, being called a ‘retard.’ ’’

Palmieri and her husband met with school principal Derek Swenson, armed with the names of three suspected bullies. “He handled it in a very quick and direct manner,’’ the mother said. “The kids were suspended from the school and the buses.’’

At Palmieri’s suggestion, they were also required to do research papers on Down syndrome.

Nick Palmieri agreed the school handled the situation quickly and effectively. “That’s the way it’s supposed to be,’’ he said.

Brian’s behavior at school and at home, meanwhile, has returned to normal, his mother said.

“But you still feel like a failure as a parent, like you let your kid down for nearly a year,’’ she said.

Englander said school districts must make sure their teachers stay vigilant against bullying behavior, long after the flurry over the new legislation dies down.

“For many children, teaching behavioral change is not a one-time thing,’’ Englander said. “It has to be an ongoing message they hear over and over.’’

Christine Legere can be reached at christinelegere@yahoo.com.

Bullying in school
College students surveyed last year were asked whether they had ever been bullied in high school.
32% said they were frequently bullied
43% said they had been bullied sometimes
60% said they had been bullied via instant messaging, social networking sites, text messages, or other electronic means
40% knew of students who were bullied
so severely they left school
80% said they were not aware of any anti-bullying program in their school districts
SOURCE: Massachusetts Aggression Reduction Center