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Activists urge lawmakers to expand bullying law

By Sarah Schweitzer
Globe Staff / February 10, 2011

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The former prosecutor who brought criminal charges in the state’s most high-profile bullying case recommended yesterday that the state beef up antibullying laws by imposing fines or other civil sanctions on school employees who fail to report such activity.

“There ought to be some teeth,’’ said Elizabeth Scheibel, who recently retired as Northwestern district attorney after initiating prosecution of the teens accused of bullying Phoebe Prince, the South Hadley teen who committed suicide.

Scheibel also said the law should require school administrators to report to prosecutors all episodes they have determined to be bullying, not just those they believe are criminal, as the law currently demands.

Scheibel’s recommendations came at a State House hearing convened by Attorney General Martha Coakley, who is leading a seven-member panel charged with assessing the antibullying law enacted last year. The panel is to make recommendations to the Legislature in June.

Currently the law mandates that school staff, from teachers to custodians to coaches, report bullying to school administrators. But the law provides no sanctions for those who fail to report bullying.

Scheibel said the law should be more like those governing child abuse, which require a broad range of caretakers to report suspected abuse or face civil penalties.

In an interview after her testimony, Scheibel said that referring credible bullying cases to law enforcement would not increase the number of criminal prosecutions because law enforcement officials share school administrators’ hopes of keeping students out of the criminal justice system.

But she said district attorneys offices are better equipped to make the call when criminal charges are appropriate.

Coakley declined to comment on Scheibel’s testimony.

In a statement, Coakley said, “We appreciate DA Scheibel’s testimony and her important perspective as we do all of those who testified. We look forward to . . . using this information as we develop our report for the Legislature.’’

The law, signed last May by Governor Deval Patrick, 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.

Also testifying yesterday, State Auditor Suzanne Bump called for schools to report bullying to the state Department of Elementary and Secondary Education and for the department to compile an annual report of bullying incidents.

It “will allow educators, parents, students, school committee members, state education officials, and law enforcement to have an accurate and easily accessible count of incidents from year to year,’’ she said.

Several people testifying said that the law should not be amended to make parents liable for their children’s bullying.

“Parents play a critical role in prevention and response, and the Commonwealth should include them in the education process by giving them a voice and by providing training and resources,’’ said Harvey Wolkoff, chairman of the civil rights committee of the Anti-Defamation League’s New England region.

Elizabeth Englander, director of the Massachusetts Aggression Reduction Center at Bridgewater State University who helped shape the law, said parental liability could be harmful.

Parental liability would “drive away parents who want to do the right thing,’’ she said.

Scheibel did not address the issue of parental liability in her testimony and declined to offer her opinion yesterday in an interview, but said she may submit her opinion in writing to the commission.

Sarah Schweitzer can be reached at schweitzer@globe.com