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Mass. offers schools some help to combat bullying

By Peter Schworm
Globe Staff / August 25, 2010

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The state Education Department released a model antibullying plan yesterday to help local schools develop their own policies to protect students from being picked on.

The 14-page plan is meant as a template for local schools, which under the state’s new law against bullying must create bullying prevention plans by year’s end. The legislation was passed in May after two Massachusetts youths who faced harassment from other students committed suicide, creating pressure for lawmakers to act.

In the case of Phoebe Prince, a South Hadley teenager who hanged herself in January, several students face criminal harassment charges in connection with her death, and school administrators were criticized by some who said they failed to intervene aggressively enough.

In a memo sent to school administrators yesterday, Mitchell Chester, education commissioner, recommended that districts use the state’s plan as a model, but added that “there is no single approach to developing and implementing an effective bullying prevention and intervention strategies.’’

The plan outlines the requirements of the law and advises schools on how to comply with the new regulations. It also suggests precise wording for local policies; for example, that students with disabilities and those who are gay “may be more vulnerable to becoming targets of bullying, harassment, or teasing.’’

The suggested framework also states: “We will not tolerate any unlawful or disruptive behavior, including any form of bullying, cyberbullying, or retaliation.’’

“With the start of the new school year approaching, schools will now have guidance in developing their own prevention plans,’’ state Senator Robert O’Leary, cochairman of the Joint Committee on Education, said in a statement. “This is a great first step in curbing the increase in bullying we are seeing in our schools, and this will lead to increased safety and security for our students.’’

School leaders across the state have been working on new guidelines over the summer to comply with the state law. Watertown officials recently updated the system’s code of conduct to include cyberbullying, and West Bridgewater schools are creating a tip line that will accept text messages.

The legislation requires school employees to report all instances of bullying — both in person and online — and requires principals to investigate them. Parents can report bullying, and reports can be anonymous, although no disciplinary action will be taken against a student based solely on an anonymous report.

“The school or district expects students, parents or guardians, and others who witness or become aware of an instance of bullying or retaliation involving a student to report it to the principal or designee,’’ the state’s plan says.

The legislation defines bullying as repeated acts that cause physical or emotional harm, place students in fear, or create an “unwelcome or hostile’’ school environment for a student.

Once administrators determine bullying has occurred, they must promptly notify the students involved and their parents. If administrators believe the harassment may warrant criminal charges, they must contact police.

“We have seen the tragic consequences that bullying, if left unaddressed, can have on many of our children,’’ Attorney General Martha Coakley said in a statement. “We will continue to address the root causes of bullying by bringing schools and communities together to change school climate and proactively prevent bullying in the first place.’’

School employees must receive training each year to identify and respond to bullying, and teachers must discuss bullying in the classroom.

Educators must also help students with disabilities respond to teasing and harassment. Schools must offer education programs to parents. All schools are required to come up with a bullying prevention plan.

Peter Schworm can be reached at schworm@globe.com.

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