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State failed to oversee schools’ policies against hazing

Audit finds lack of follow-up on old and new laws

The suicide of Phoebe Prince, who was harassed by peers, spurred a law that all districts file a bullying prevention plan. The suicide of Phoebe Prince, who was harassed by peers, spurred a law that all districts file a bullying prevention plan.
By Milton J. Valencia
Globe Staff / January 14, 2011

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For years, the state Department of Elementary and Secondary Education failed to monitor school districts’ compliance with Massachusetts’ antihazing laws, resulting in a checkered enforcement system across the state, according to a review by the state auditor’s office.

The review did not address actions taken by local districts, and indications are that districts do enforce antihazing programs, but the state’s failure to monitor mandated reporting has left it with no way to measure what works.

State officials said yesterday that the reporting and monitoring of hazing is critical now, after Massachusetts officials have put so much effort into programs designed to combat bullying and harassment. The state’s antihazing law also came under the public spotlight in November when Needham school officials suspended 10 members of the girls’ soccer team for hazing. That same month, eight Agawam football players were suspended for hazing.

“There’s no gathering of this information,’’ said John Parsons, the state’s first deputy auditor. “Now, with the bullying law, someone should be gathering this information and following up with the school districts.’’

He added that the Education Department “should be notifying the school system to say, ‘How did you deal with it? Did it follow your policies and procedures?’ ’’

JC Considine, the Education Department spokesman, said that the concerns identified by the state audit have been rectified and that the state has created a proper communication system with school districts. The state audit was conducted over the summer, before the incidents in Agawam and Needham, and the state said its new system was in place by then.

“Obviously, we take this matter seriously, and we’re heartened to know that everything identified in the report has been remedied,’’ Considine said.

The Globe reported earlier this month that 99 percent of the state’s school districts met a Dec. 31 deadline to file a bullying prevention plan with the Education Department, in compliance with the state law passed in May.

That law was approved in reaction to the death of Phoebe Prince, a 15-year-old from South Hadley who had been harassed by fellow students and killed herself last year, and to the 2009 suicide of 11-year-old Carl Joseph Walker-Hoover of Springfield, who was called gay by his peers.

But 25 years since the passage of the antihazing laws, spurred by a fraternity initiation that resulted in the death of a college student, the state failed to enforce the requirement that districts file annual reports on their policies and state whether any disciplinary action was taken, according to the state audit, which spanned its review from 2006 through 2010. In that time, according to the audit, only 22 reports were filed, when more than 4,000 should have been.

Also, the audit found, the state Education Department never notified the state attorney general’s office that districts failed to meet the Oct. 1 deadline for filing the reports.

Parsons said yesterday that his office is recommending that the Legislature pass new laws requiring the Department of Elementary and Secondary Education to compile its own annual report, based on the district reporting, listing all the hazing incidents reported across the state, so that policy makers can determine what works and whether new measures need to be taken.

“There’s just no way of knowing how out of date [current requirements] are,’’ Parsons said. “There needs to be some sort of central oversight. In the absence of that, there’s no guarantee there’s a uniform protocol out there for investigating these. We can’t rely on 400 individual districts.’’

A sampling of six secondary schools — four public and two private — by the auditor’s office found that they reacted to the state hazing law differently. Only two of them realized they need to file annual reports, though none of them did. Also, only two of them posted for students the text of the antihazing law, required under the law.

However, all six of them did have a discipline policy that was approved by their local governing boards, and they all obtained and maintained signatures from students agreeing to the policy.

Considine, the state education spokesman, said that the existence of the discipline policies, even if the state doesn’t have reports on them, “is further solid evidence that . . . they’re addressing this antisocial behavior amongst students.’’

Milton Valencia can be reached at mvalencia@globe.com.