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Bullying legislation gains new urgency

Death of student spurs joint panel to address problem

TAUNTED BY CLASSMATES Authorities are investigating the role of bullying in the apparent suicide of Phoebe Prince, a South Hadley High freshman. TAUNTED BY CLASSMATES
Authorities are investigating the role of bullying in the apparent suicide of Phoebe Prince, a South Hadley High freshman.
By James Vaznis
Globe Staff / January 26, 2010

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Lawmakers are stepping up efforts to pass a bullying-prevention measure targeting the type of taunting that authorities say a South Hadley teenager endured before allegedly taking her own life.

The bill, which is still being drafted, combines aspects of about a dozen bills that were the subject of a hearing before the Joint Committee on Education in November. The resulting measure is expected to be released to the House and Senate sometime next month, Representative Martha M. Walz, a Boston Democrat and the committee’s cochairwoman, said yesterday.

“What happened in South Hadley underscores the importance of stopping bullying as rapidly as possible, so it does not spiral out of control,’’ Walz said.

South Hadley police and the Northwestern district attorney’s office are investigating the role of bullying in the apparent suicide of Phoebe Prince, a 15-year-old freshman at South Hadley High School.

It is believed that Prince endured a barrage of ridicule from a clique of girls who were irate that she had dated a football player.

Much of the taunting took place through cellphone text messages and on Facebook, and it apparently continued after Prince, a recent Irish immigrant, died on Jan. 14, school officials have said.

The legislation would address, among other things, so-called cyberbullying, or harassment of peers on the Internet. The problem has been growing rapidly over the years, and advocates for students and school administrators have said that such bullying tends to be much nastier and more rampant than face-to-face encounters.

One of the tricky issues of addressing cyberbullying in the context of school is that it often takes place while students are off campus. However, on many occasions, the taunting stems from incidents that occur at school, and therefore should be addressed by school administrators, advocates for students have said.

“It’s very clear we need to address cyberbullying,’’ Walz said yesterday. “It’s part of school culture, even if it doesn’t happen within the four walls of a school building.’’

After hearing testimony in November from 28 people, nearly all urging passage of a bill to prevent bullying, leaders of the Joint Education Committee decided to make the bill a priority when the Legislature returns this month.

The South Hadley tragedy makes it clear that a bullying-prevention bill of some kind is urgently needed, said state Senator Robert A. O’Leary, a Cape Cod Democrat and cochairman of the Joint Education Committee.

Derrek Shulman - director of the Anti-Defamation League New England, which has built a broad coalition in support of one of the bullying-prevention bills - said Prince’s death “redoubles our passion to have antibullying policies in place across the Commonwealth.’’

South Hadley Superintendent Gus Sayer did not return a phone call yesterday. A copy of the high school’s handbook on the school’s website includes a passage on bullying, outlining such consequences as suspension and police intervention. But cyberbullying is not among the types of bullying listed.

South Hadley school officials said over the weekend that they tried to address the bullying, providing both counseling and discipline to various students involved. The school system also has been reviewing antibullying policies at its schools over the last 18 months, while Prince’s death prompted the high school to put together its own task force to examine the issue.

Even districts that have bullying-prevention measures do not always execute them well, intervening too late or not at all, advocates for students have said.