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State bill targeting bullying approved

Aims at school, cyber behavior; One of toughest measures in US

By Peter Schworm
Globe Staff / April 30, 2010

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Invoking the suicides of Phoebe Prince and Carl Joseph Walker-Hoover, lawmakers unanimously approved a sweeping measure to crack down on school bullying, saying its strict requirements for reporting student harassment make it one of the nation’s toughest.

Yesterday’s legislation emerged with broad prohibitions against any actions that could cause emotional or physical harm, including text messages and taunting over the Internet. It also mandates antibullying training, for faculty as well as students, and requires that parents be informed of incidents at school.

But at the heart of the measure, lawmakers said, is the requirement that every school employee, including custodians and cafeteria workers, report incidents of suspected bullying and that principals investigate each case.

“This is a day that we can be proud we have done something positive — to eradicate bullying and to demonstrate to this Commonwealth and to the nation that bullying will no longer be tolerated,’’ said Representative John W. Scibak, a South Hadley Democrat.

The legislation will now be sent to Governor Deval Patrick, who praised the bill and said he would sign it in short order.

“Bullying in our schools cannot be tolerated and teachers and administrators need additional tools to ensure our kids are learning in safe and nurturing environments,’’ Patrick said in a statement.

The deaths of Prince, a South Hadley High School student who hanged herself in January amid relentless harassment from other students, and Walker-Hoover, a Springfield 11-year-old who took his own life last year after being bullied, sparked a public outcry over school bullying and galvanized support for the legislation. Lawmakers said the new rules, particularly those mandating that all bullying be reported, will help protect students who now feel they have nowhere to turn.

“Bullying is not new. Bullying has been with us from time immemorial. But what has changed is that it appears to be more pervasive, more destructive,’’ Senator Robert O’Leary said as he introduced the bill yesterday. “We’re going to send out a message that this kind of behavior is not acceptable.’’

O’Leary and other legislators said it was regrettable that they did not address the problem until the two suicides, but expressed hope that the law would in some way honor their memory.

“No child should ever have to endure the constant harassment that Phoebe and other young bullying victims have been subject to,’’ said Richard R. Tisei, the Senate minority leader. “My hope is that these changes we have made today will make our schools safer for all students.’’

Massachusetts has been one of just seven states without a specific law targeting school bullying, and laws are pending in Wisconsin and Hawaii.

Supporters praised the scope and reach of the measure.

“This is a tremendous opportunity to protect our kids from the destructive impact of bullying and cyberbullying by requiring the training of school staff to prevent and respond to incidents of bullying,’’ said Derrek Shulman, who directs the region’s chapter of the Anti-Defamation League.

School officials said the bill, coupled with intense public pressure to deter bullying, will force teachers and staff to crack down on even mild insults and teasing.

“What every school administrator is realizing now is that we have to step it up a notch,’’ said George Usevich, principal of Norwood High School. The bill has “heightened awareness in every school, and rightfully so.’’

Administrators said the mandate to involve authorities in extreme bullying cases would give potential bullies pause. But some school officials said lawmakers had overreached and that the bill could lead to discipline for even minor incidents and create a bureaucratic nightmare.

“It’s a noble bill,’’ said Paul Dakin, superintendent of the Revere public schools. “But it remains to be seen how policy set at the State House can be practically implemented in our schools. As the rubber hits the road, it’s another unfunded mandate.’’

Others said the measure did not go far enough, citing the bill’s lack of penalties for employees who do not report bullying.

“It lacks teeth,’’ said Representative Robert S. Hargraves, a Groton Republican and former high school principal. “But anything is better than nothing.’’

Antonio Cabral, a New Bedford Democrat, agreed the threat of fines would have strengthened the bill, but said he believed school officials would do their best to comply with the law.

Others faulted the bill for not making bullying a crime, but legislators said prosecutors have plenty of weapons in existing statutes, such as those against stalking and harassment. The legislation would amend harassment and stalking laws to include electronic communication.

Civil libertarians said the bill defines bullying so broadly that students could get in trouble for teasing or other free speech that, while offensive, is constitutionally protected.

The bill defines bullying as repeated 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 prohibits 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.

Supporters, recalling the heartrending testimony of students who had been bullied, said the problem demanded a legal remedy.

“It’s so profoundly disturbing, what the adults are letting them get away with,’’ said Representative Martha M. Walz, House chairwoman of the Education Committee and the bill’s primary author.

Some parents said they hoped the bill would force adults to take bullying more seriously, but added that the jury was out. “You can have as many policies and laws as you want, but they have to be followed consistently,’’ said Laurie Reisner, a Dedham mother who leads a parents group that discusses bullying. “It’s going to be up to the teachers and the administrators to step up.’’

Michael Levenson and Jonathan Saltzman of the Globe staff contributed to this report. Peter Schworm can be reached at schworm@globe.com.

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