Supporters of a bill intended to crack down on bullying in schools gathered today at a State House news conference, hoping to build momentum for the proposal, which is expected to be considered by the state Senate next Thursday.
The measure, approved by the Joint Committee on Education last week, attempts to address old-style in-person bullying – the kind that has plagued schools for years – and cyberbullying of students over the Internet.
"This comprehensive approach to prevent bullying -- and deal with it when it does happen -- is overdue in Massachusetts," said Derrek Shulman, director of the Anti-Defamation League New England office.
The push for the legislation comes after recent high-profile cases of students enduring abuse by bullies. Phoebe Prince, 15, of South Hadley is thought to have committed suicide in January after allegedly being abused both in school and online by classmates at South Hadley High School.
The bill, Senate 2283, defines and bans bullying and cyberbullying; prohibits retaliation against anyone who reports it; requires schools to develop bullying prevention programs; requires staff to report bullying to the principal; and requires the principal to investigate and take appropriate action. The principal must also notify the police if he or she believes criminal charges are warranted.
Criminal charges might be brought in cases where the bullying has escalated to threats or assaults, for example, Shulman said.
Shulman said the ADL was leading a 50-member coalition that included organizations ranging from the Massachusetts Association of School Committees and the Massachusetts Teachers Association to the Massachusetts Chiefs of Police Association and Microsoft Corp.
Forty-one other states already have such a law, he said. He said he was confident that both the House and Senate would pass versions of the bill.
The governor, Senate president, and House speaker have all urged strong legislation to stop bullies. "The time for action against bullying is now," Governor Deval Patrick said in a statement after the bill was approved by the Education Committee last week.
"It's an enormous problem. It's been around forever, but it's changing. People are going on the Internet and they're bullying electronically and it's impacting what's happening in schools," said Senator Robert O'Leary, Senate chairman of the Joint Committee on Education. "We feel quite strongly that we need to do something."
The chances for the bill are "very good. … For the most part, there's pretty broad support for this from what I can see," said the Democrat, who represents the Cape and islands.
"If you think about it, children, psychologically, they're very fragile. Would we allow someone to go up in the playground and break someone's arm? We wouldn't. Why would we allow people to do some serious psychological damage to someone?" said Senator Kenneth J. Donnelly, the Senate vice chairman of the committee.
The point of the legislation, Shulman said, is "to enhance safety for kids at school. … If the kids can't be safe in schools, how can we expect them to be productive and culturally competent members of society?"
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