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Lawmakers expected to pass antibullying legislation today

South Hadley school officials formed a task force after Phoebe Prince’s death and have since drafted an antibullying policy. South Hadley school officials formed a task force after Phoebe Prince’s death and have since drafted an antibullying policy.
By Peter Schworm
Globe Staff / April 29, 2010

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Lawmakers are poised to enact sweeping antibullying legislation after reaching agreement yesterday on a measure that would require school employees to report all instances of bullying and require principals to investigate them.

Both the House and the Senate are expected to pass the bill today, and Governor Deval Patrick has voiced strong support for the measure, which gained momentum after the highly publicized deaths of 15-year-old Phoebe Prince and 11-year-old Carl Joseph Walker-Hoover, who took their own lives after being bullied.

State Representative Martha Walz, the bill’s primary author, said the mandates will deter bullying and prevent it from reaching dangerous proportions.

“When this passes, it will the strongest antibullying legislation in the country,’’ said Walz, a Boston Democrat and House chairwoman of the Joint Committee on Education. “Without mandatory reporting, things can spiral out of control.’’

The public outcry over the two suicides, and widespread anger at what was seen as the failure of school administrators in South Hadley to intervene against Prince’s tormentors, fueled support for the bill. Massachusetts has been one of just seven states without a specific law targeting school bullying, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures, and laws are pending in Wisconsin and Hawaii.

The reporting mandate would apply to all school staff, including cafeteria workers, custodians, bus drivers, and coaches at public and private schools alike, legislators said. The bill also requires principals to notify parents of both the aggressor and victim when bullying has occurred. They must notify law enforcement authorities if they believe criminal charges may be warranted.

The bill defines bullying as acts that cause physical or emotional harm, place students “in reasonable fear of harm,’’ or create an “unwelcoming or hostile environment at school for another person.’’

It would prohibit bullying on school grounds, on school buses, at school-sponsored activities, and through electronic communications. Bullying via e-mail or social networking sites such as Facebook would fall under the purview of the schools when it creates a hostile school environment, legislators said.

The bill does not prescribe penalties for violators, leaving schools to choose their own sanctions for school employees who look the other way.

“Faculty and staff could potentially lose their job,’’ said Representative John Scibak, a Democrat from South Hadley. Last month, both legislative chambers unanimously passed earlier versions of the bill.

The bill also would require schools to teach students about bullying prevention each year, train staff to recognize it, and adopt plans to address the problem.

The plan must outline procedures for reporting and investigating bullying, and spell out the range of penalties for perpetrators. Schools must also offer parents education about bullying.

“The intent is to fundamentally change school cultures,’’ Walz said.

The changes would take effect at the beginning of the next school year.

Advocates, who had feared the Legislature would approve a half-measure, praised the bill as tough and comprehensive.

“This is really going to make a difference for kids,’’ said Arline Isaacson, cochairwoman of the Massachusetts Gay & Lesbian Political Caucus, who praised the bill’s training requirement.

“If the staff is trained in how to deal with bullying, that will take a real bite out of the problem.’’

Derrek Shulman, regional director of the Anti-Defamation League of New England, which lobbied for the bill, said the legislation marked a “serious attempt’’ to address the problem.

“It requires students to be aware of the destructive impact of bullying,’’ he said.

Elizabeth Englander, a bullying specialist at Bridgewater State College, said the legislation will serve as a strong deterrent.

“You’re really sending a message that this is serious,’’ she said. “It lets adults know they are obligated to report this behavior when it is serious.’’

Under the bill, the state education department must develop a model bullying prevention plan. Children who are vulnerable to bullying because of a disability, and children with autism, must have provisions in their special-education plans to help them deal with bullies.

In a statement, Education Commissioner Mitchell Chester said the Legislature “has delivered a clear message that civil behavior is expected and bullying will not be tolerated.’’ Earlier this week, South Hadley school officials released a draft antibullying policy that requires all staff members to report “any bullying they see or learn about’’ and pledges to “promptly and reasonably’’ investigate any allegation of harassment. The draft policy was written by a 31-member task force created after Prince’s death in January.

Six former students at South Hadley High School have been charged in connection with her suicide.

Prosecutors say Prince, an Irish immigrant, was relentlessly harassed by two groups of students after she had a brief relationship with an older student.

Her death, and the subsequent charges against the students, have drawn international attention as a symbol of the perils of bullying.

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