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Senate OK’s bill to curtail bullying

Emotions high on Beacon Hill

During the emotional debate over the antibullying bill, senators cited the deaths of 15-year-old Phoebe Prince, left, and Carl Joseph Walker-Hoover, 11, who in separate instances committed suicide allegedly because of peer harassment. During the emotional debate over the antibullying bill, senators cited the deaths of 15-year-old Phoebe Prince, left, and Carl Joseph Walker-Hoover, 11, who in separate instances committed suicide allegedly because of peer harassment.
By James Vaznis
Globe Staff / March 12, 2010

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The state Senate, heeding emotional pleas from hundreds of students, unanimously passed a bill yesterday that aims to curb bullying at schools and in cyberspace.

During the emotional deliberations, which lasted more than an hour, senators repeatedly invoked the tragedies of two Western Massachusetts youths who killed themselves after allegedly being bullied in separate instances over the past year.

“The tragedy of the loss of Phoebe Prince in South Hadley and Carl Joseph Walker-Hoover in Springfield adds a crushing reminder that we need to act quickly,’’ said Senator James B. Eldridge, an Acton Democrat, as he urged his colleagues to pass the bill. “If any good can come from these terrible events, it is the momentum to pass this long overdue legislation.’’

In a heartfelt plea, Senator Mark C. Montigny, a New Bedford Democrat, read a letter he received from a girl in Southeastern Massachusetts, detailing the cruel words other students hurled at her and the daily kicks she was subjected to.

Montigny said the most damaging insult that he could read aloud from the letter in the chamber without being ruled inappropriate was “dummy.’’ Others were far harsher. “Shockingly, this girl is 9 years old,’’ he said.

The bill, which now heads to the House, was one of two approved by the Senate yesterday aimed at fostering a safer and healthier learning environment for the state’s schoolchildren. The other bill would rid school vending machines of soda and junk food during school hours, among other initiatives.

The Senate will work with the House, which passed a similar nutrition measure in January, to reconcile differences, and a spokeswoman said that Governor Deval Patrick looks forward to signing a bill soon.

Approval of the bullying prevention bill was widely expected among advocates because the Senate has passed similar measures at least twice before, only to run into problems in the House.

Eldridge said that yesterday’s bill represented the strongest measure yet passed by his colleagues. The unanimous backing adds momentum as the measure goes to the House.

The bill would require school districts to adopt a policy to prevent and address bullying at school and on the Internet, including a requirement to notify parents of victims and perpetrators. It also empowers school administrators to discipline students if they bully peers on the Internet outside school, in cases where it affects a victim while at school, and to refer any case that involves criminal actions to law enforcement officials.

After the session, Senate President Therese Murray told reporters she believed that the bill would be effective in combating bullying and that Prince’s suicide highlighted the need for a state law.

But some advocates for students, while happy to see a bill passed, raised concerns that senators watered down the bill to save school districts money. The Senate softened language that required that all school staff receive training on how to identify and respond to bullying.

In the two Western Massachusetts suicides, school administrators have been criticized for not adequately responding to bullying charges.

“We believe training of education staff is essential to the success of this bill,’’ said Arline Isaacson, cochairwoman of the Massachusetts Gay & Lesbian Political Caucus. “A lot of good and well-intentioned educators want to help and do the right thing, but they don’t know what to do. They want and need training.’’

Even before the Senate took up the bill, some advocates for students said it lacked teeth because it did not require school districts to report bullying to the state Education Department as a way to ensure that administrators properly handled the cases. But some specialists on bullying worried that such a requirement would cause districts to shy away from addressing the problem, fearful that a state report could potentially cast their school in a negative light.

Yesterday, some senators tried unsuccessfully to add a much stiffer reporting requirement that would force districts to notify the district attorney of any instance of bullying.

Robert Trestan of the Anti-Defamation League New England, which has been pushing for passage of a bullying bill for years, said that reporting bullying cases to the district attorney was “overkill,’’ arguing that it is sufficient for school administrators to determine which cases should be referred to law enforcement.

“The goal is to educate, not to take 7-year-old kids out of school in handcuffs,’’ Trestan said.

His group, however, supports a reporting requirement to the state Department of Elementary and Secondary Education, which could then periodically audit school districts for compliance.

Representative Martha M. Walz, a Boston Democrat and House chairwoman of the Joint Committee on Education, said she expected the House would swiftly approve a bullying-prevention bill, which is a priority for Speaker Robert A. DeLeo.

“There is very strong interest among House colleagues to pass antibullying legislation,’’ said Walz, adding that members have also been receiving hundreds of letters of support. “There are too many horror stories that we are getting from our constituents and their children that are happening at school and online. It’s time to force schools not addressing the problem to do something to keep their children safe.’’

James Vaznis can be reached at jvaznis@globe.com.