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Antibully measure advances to Senate

Would not require schools to report incidents to state

By James Vaznis
Globe Staff / February 24, 2010

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A bill aimed at dramatically reducing bullying in schools gained a key endorsement yesterday and will go to the Senate for a vote early next month, weeks after a South Hadley teenager committed suicide following apparent harassment from her peers.

The measure, approved by the Joint Committee on Education, attempts to address both old-style bullying - the kind that has persisted in school hallways, playgrounds, and on those yellow buses for years - and the new, so-called cyberbullying.

But some advocates, even as they praised the bill, expressed concern because it would not require districts to report cases to the state, a key component of a bill filed last year that had broad support among teachers and law enforcement officials.

“We are not trying to play gotcha,’’ said Derrek Shulman, regional director for the Anti-Defamation League New England. “We need to see which schools need the most help.’’

An important provision of the legislation would require every school district to adopt prevention and intervention measures. The state would have to come up with model strategies to assist districts in meeting the new requirement.

The Senate is expected to vote on the bill March 9. “We saw the tragic events in South Hadley earlier this year, and we felt we needed to do something and it’s the right thing to do,’’ said Senator Robert A. O’Leary, a Democrat who represents Cape Cod and the islands and is the Education Committee’s cochairman.

Massachusetts is among less than a dozen states that have not passed a law to prevent bullying - a problem school administrators say has grown more hostile and pervasive in recent years as students harass others via social websites and cellphones equipped with text messaging and cameras.

Some school officials say it is difficult to police cyberbullying because students often send taunting missives from electronic devices while at home, leaving administrators to question the extent of their authority to discipline the students. The bill would allow school officials to intervene if cyberbullying affects the school environment.

Attempts to pass a bullying prevention bill in Massachusetts have repeatedly failed, but last year a coalition of about 50 organizations led by the Anti-Defamation League New England rallied behind one bill, pieces of which were used in the resulting proposal.

Support is also building among state leaders, with the governor, Senate president, and the House speaker urging strong legislation to stop bullies.

“The time for action against bullying is now, and I commend the Legislature for moving this bill forward,’’ Governor Deval Patrick said in a statement last night.

“As governor and as a parent, I cannot and will not accept children feeling unsafe at school. Let’s give teachers and administrators the tools they need to make schools safer places.’’

The legislation’s goal is to “ensure that school climates are safe and respectful for all students,’’ said Representative Martha M. Walz, a Boston Democrat and cochairwoman of the Education Committee.

She said committee members were concerned that requiring administrators to report bullying to the state would discourage some schools from addressing the problem aggressively. It was a concern raised in recent months by some specialists on bullying prevention.

“There was a concern with that kind of reporting requirement that school districts would underreport because they might feel embarrassed about what is going on in their schools,’’ Walz said.

The bill, however, would require school administrators to notify parents of victims and of perpetrators of an incident and contact law enforcement if criminal charges should be sought.

Another provision of the bill would mandate that children on the autism spectrum receive counseling on how to avoid and respond to bullying. Bullies have targeted a number of autistic children across the state.

Gus Sayer, superintendent of South Hadley schools, said yesterday that school officials have taken disciplinary action against a small number of students involved in the bullying of Prince and that those students will not return to the town’s high school. He would not say whether the students had been expelled.

“That is part of their personal, private record,’’ Sayer said.

Prince, 15, is thought to have committed suicide last month after allegedly enduring online and in-school abuse from her classmates at South Hadley High.

Sayer said a new task force - which is expected to include students, teachers, administrators, school board officials, parents, and community members - will review all practices and policies.

Martin Finucane of the Globe staff contributed to this report. James Vaznis can be reached at jvaznis@globe.com.