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Schools lag on bullying strategy

Child protection plans due Friday

By Jenna Russell
Globe Staff / December 26, 2010

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Forty percent of Massachusetts school districts have not filed bullying-prevention plans with the state, despite a Dec. 31 deadline for administrators to comply with a new law that seeks to improve protection for students in the classroom and beyond.

The law, approved by the Legislature and signed by Governor Deval Patrick last spring, was passed amid urgent calls for action following the suicide of bullied student Phoebe Prince on Jan. 14. It requires schools to adopt clear procedures for reporting and investigating cases of bullying, as well as methods for preventing retaliation against those who report problems.

The new measure has sparked widespread debate about complex aspects of a longtime social problem, including how to define bullying, whose responsibility it is to stamp it out, and how schools can control conflict on the Internet.

As of late last week, 238 out of 394 public school districts had submitted their plans, a spokesman for the state Department of Education said, after a last-minute push that brought in new documents hourly.

After the year-end deadline passes, the state will notify districts that failed to submit plans, said the spokesman, JC Considine. The law does not specify penalties for failing to file a plan by the deadline.

Considine said it is too soon to raise concerns about compliance.

“It’s a very fluid process — they are pouring in,’’ he said Thursday. “It’s hard to make a call on the success rate at this point.’’

But a leading advocate of the new law disagreed. Robert Trestan, civil rights counsel for the Anti-Defamation League, said he was troubled by the numbers, given the publicity surrounding the new law and the fact that school districts have had since May to comply. “To change the culture, everyone needs to be on board,’’ he said. “Parents are in a position to hold schools accountable, and if your district doesn’t have a policy, you need to step up and ask why not.’’

Under the law, districts were required to follow a collaborative process that allowed school staff, teachers, volunteers, parents, students, residents and law enforcement to weigh in. In most cases, local school committees approved plans before submitting them to the state Department of Education, where officials review them to ensure they meet the law’s requirements.

The schools must have procedures for notifying the parents of bullying targets and for involving police when necessary. The policies must also outline a system for referring bullies and victims to separate counseling and for providing training for all school employees to prevent and respond to student harassment.

Glenn Koocher, executive director of the Massachusetts Association of School Committees, said he was not alarmed by the compliance numbers. He said he suspects most districts have drafted policies but have not submitted them to the state, either because they don’t realize they must do so, or because they plan to do so this week, even though schools are closed for vacation.

In addition to the 238 public districts and charter schools that have submitted plans, 46 of 120 special-education schools and 14 of 30 educational collaboratives had filed plans, Considine said. Private and parochial schools must also have plans in place but are not required to submit them to the state.

Concerns abound about how the law will work, how much paperwork it will generate, and how much of a burden it will place on principals as they sort through complaints and decide what steps to take.

Jarrod Hochman, a school committee member in Peabody, said he planned to vote against his district’s proposed antibullying policy because the comprehensive procedures required by the state go too far in imposing new roles and responsibilities on school leaders.

“Clearly, there are kids who need help, and I do believe some policy is needed, but this is just too much,’’ he said. “It’s jumping in with both feet without really understanding what’s needed, instead of allowing a policy to grow as things progress.’’

The day-to-day enforcement of the law is likely to produce unanticipated dilemmas, said Thomas Scott, executive director of the Massachusetts Association of School Superintendents. For example, Scott said, administrators will have to decide what to do if a student is harassed for being gay and the school must notify his parents — without knowing whether they know about his sexual orientation.

“The details are sort of a quagmire,’’ he said. “Making judgments about the level of severity, and who should be contacted, and whether to step it up to law enforcement . . . there are a lot of hard decisions, a lot of ways to step into the muck.’’

Some students in Boston voiced concerns with the 22-page policy approved by the city’s school committee earlier this month, saying it focused too much on discipline and not enough on helping bullies understand and reform their behavior.

Dennis Tan, 17, a senior at Quincy Upper School and a member of the Boston Student Advisory Council, said he hopes to work with administrators to encourage them to consider alternative methods of coping with bullying, such as asking students to teach other students how to intervene.

“Instead of just automatically suspending or expelling [bullies], there should be a focus on undoing harm,’’ Tan said. “Someone should be teaching you why you shouldn’t bully. We need kids to learn from their mistakes, or they’re going to do it again.’’

State filing deadline aside, the most important question — whether the law will truly work as intended — remains to be answered, said Koocher, of the state school committee association. But already, he said, the heightened attention to the problem is making a difference.

“We’re hearing that potential bullies are being more careful before they open their mouths,’’ he said. “The media has made a big deal of it, people are more conscious, and I think that’s being felt all the way down to the child level.’’

Jenna Russell can be reached at jrussell@globe.com.