Mass. Senate approves anti-bullying legislation
STEVE LEBLANC | 3/17/2010, 4:57 a.m.
The Massachusetts Senate unanimously backed an anti-bullying bill last Thursday, spurred on by the recent suicides of two students whose family and friends said had been tormented by their classmates.
The bill would prohibit bullying at schools and clamp down on so-called cyberbullying by prohibiting the use of e-mails, text messages, Internet postings and other electronic means to create a hostile school environment.
The bill would also require school principals to report bullies to police if the principal believes criminal charges could be pursued. And administrators would be required to publish an anti-bulling policy and create an anti-bullying curriculum for students.
While bullying has long been a part of growing up, the spike in cyberbullying has taken the problem to a new level, according to backers of the legislation.
Gov. Deval Patrick has expressed support for the anti-bullying push. The bill now heads to the House.
The explosion of social networking sites like Twitter and Facebook means bullying can continue long after the school day is over, and bullies can entice others to gang up on their victims.
“It’s moved online. It’s moved into cyberspace. It’s become more anonymous,” said Sen. Robert O’Leary (D-Barnstable), one of the bill’s sponsors. “This is a big problem and it’s getting worse.”
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.
The bill includes stepped-up protections for children with special needs by helping them better handle and respond to incidents of bullying.
Senators rejected a Republican-sponsored amendment that would have made it mandatory for principals to forward all reports of bullying to local police departments and the district attorney’s office to determine whether prosecution is warranted.
Sen. Michael Knapik, the amendment’s sponsor, said it shouldn’t be left up to principals alone to decide whether an incident of bullying has risen to the level of a crime.
“I would defer to the law enforcement community,” said Knapik (R-Wakefield). “As a parent, I would want all the stops pulled out for my kid.”
Sen. Mark Montigny agreed, reading from a letter sent to him from a 9-year-old girl in his district who described being punched and kicked by her classmates and labeled a “dummy” and worse.
He said requiring principals to bring all reports of bullying to police would discourage any inclination to ignore the problem.
“It is easier sometimes to roll it and slip it under the carpet than take the hit in public,” said Montigny (D-New Bedford).
But Senate Ways and Means Chairman Steven Panagiotakos said principals should be given the chance to sift through reports of bullying to see which are credible and serious enough to bring in the police.
“As bad as bullying is, there are always going to be cases that are exaggerated or out-and-out lies,” said the Lowell Republican.
The push for anti-bullying legislation has gained momentum following the recent suicides of students in South Hadley and Springfield.
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 his charter school. She said they made fun of how he dressed, called him “gay” and threatened him.
In January, 15-year-old Phoebe Prince killed herself after allegedly being bullied by a group of South Hadley classmates who used text messages and Facebook posts to add to their in-person intimidation.