Mass. Senate to debate sweeping anti-bullying bill

STEVE LEBLANC | 3/10/2010, 2:49 a.m.

Massachusetts schools would be required to take a tougher stand against classroom bullies if a bill set to be debated by the state Senate this week becomes law.

The bill would prohibit bullying in schools. It would also crack down on so-called cyberbullying by banning the use of e-mails, text messages, Internet postings and other electronic means to create a hostile school environment for others.

Administrators would be required to publish an anti-bullying policy and create an anti-bullying curriculum for students. Every adult working in a school would have to report bullying incidents and principals would have to investigate and take disciplinary action if they determine bullying has occurred.

Rep. Marty Walz, the bill’s author, said the legislation’s goal is to create learning environments where students know they can’t harass one another. A key to that is convincing teachers, staff and other school workers to send the message that bullying won’t be tolerated.

“If we do this right, there should be a dramatic decrease in the amount of bullying in our schools,” Walz said. “Schools have to take action to try to prevent it, and when (bullying) happens, take action so things don’t spiral out of control.”

The push for anti-bullying legislation has gained momentum following the recent suicides of students in South Hadley and Springfield who were allegedly being tormented by classmates.

Under the bill, principals would be required to take disciplinary action against bullies and also notify the parents of both the bully and the victims of bullying.

Walz said parents are too often unaware that their child is being bullied — or bullying others.

“The parents who need to be a part of the solution don’t always know there is a problem,” she said.

Last year, 11-year-old Springfield resident Carl Walker-Hoover hung himself in his family’s home.

His mother, Sirdeaner Walker, said her son was bullied relentlessly by classmates at New Leadership Charter School, who made fun of how he dressed, called him gay and threatened him. She said any law should include extra protections for those vulnerable students most likely to be harassed.

“My son was bullied with anti-gay remarks,” she said. “Those kids at his middle school, his charter school, called him those names because they were probably the most hurtful things they could think of to say and they hit their mark.”

In January, 15-year-old Phoebe Prince killed herself after allegedly being bullied by a group of South Hadley classmates.

Superintendent Gus Sayer said a group of students will not be returning to the high school after Prince’s death. He would not say if they had been expelled, citing privacy concerns.

Supporters of the bill say the intensity of bullying has changed in recent years with the development of new technologies like text messages and e-mails and the explosion of social networking sites like Twitter and Facebook.

Victims can no longer flee to their homes to avoid the menace of bullies, anti-bullying advocates say. Instead, bullies can follow their victims into their bedrooms, bombarding them with hurtful messages, encouraging others to gang up on them, and sometimes enjoying the anonymity of the Internet.

“We’ve always had bullying but it’s taken on a new dimension with this cyberbullying,” said Sen. Robert O’Leary, D-Barnstable, one of the bill’s sponsors in the Senate. “It’s more all-encompassing. You can’t get away from it and it’s so easy to do it anonymously.”

In the case of Phoebe Prince, her bullies allegedly used text messages and Facebook posts to add to their in-person intimidation.

Derrek Shulman, Regional Director of the Anti-Defamation League, said if Massachusetts approves the bill it would join two dozen other states with strong anti-bullying laws.

“There no longer can be any questions or doubts about the serious nature of bullying,” Shulman said. “We all pay a price when bullying goes unchecked.”

The Senate is scheduled to debate the bill Thursday. It approved, it would move on to the House. Supporters say it could land on Gov. Deval Patrick’s desk by the end of the month.

Patrick has spoken out strongly against bullying in recent weeks.

Anti-Bullying Bill: