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MWDN: Mass. lawmakers to take on bullies

March 11, 2010

March 11, 2010
By David Riley, The MetroWest Daily News

With a vote set today in the state Senate, local lawmakers are lining up behind a bill to require schools to try to prevent bullying and develop plans for reporting and responding to the problem.

“Kids need to know that they can’t bully other kids,” said state Sen. Karen Spilka, D-Ashland. “This is a step that we as adults and we as parents and we as staff of schools can take to show that we are serious about bullying prevention and intervention.”

The legislation, Senate Bill 2313, would prohibit bullying both in-person on school grounds and by electronic means.

School districts would have to provide age-appropriate instruction on bullying in all grades, train teachers and staff annually to deal with the problem and publicize anti-bullying rules to parents and students.

Districts also would need to set up bullying prevention and response plans outlining what behavior is banned, a mechanism for reporting the problem, clear procedures for a quick response and a range of disciplinary measures.

School staff would have to investigate reports promptly and notify parents involved, as well as police if the problem appears to involve a crime.

The Legislature has considered bullying legislation in the past – state Sen. Jamie Eldridge, D-Acton, filed a similar bill in 2008.

The suicide of Phoebe Prince, a 15-year-old South Hadley student allegedly bullied by classmates, has stirred renewed calls to address the problem. The Anti-Defamation League says it leads a coalition of 50 organizations backing the measure.

Massachusetts would be the 42nd state to adopt such a law.

Eldridge, who refiled his anti-bullying bill this legislative session, said the measure up for debate today includes many of the same steps.

“I’m a strong supporter,” he said. “I think it’s really a growing problem in our schools … Especially in the area of the Internet and texting, I think it’s become even more pervasive.”

Eldridge is considering amendments to the bill, including one that would require the state to review school anti-bullying programs to make sure districts comply.

Local lawmakers acknowledged that anti-bullying rules could sometimes be challenging to enforce, particularly if an adult does not witness a reported problem firsthand.

“It’s not a simple, straight enforcement issue like if you were speeding down the road and a police officer stopped you,” said Sen. Susan Fargo, D-Lincoln, a former teacher. “It doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t try to take some steps to prevent bullying.”

Eldridge said he sees a potentially broader benefit from the bill.

“The more a school district is public that this kind of behavior and intimidation is unacceptable, there grows to be generally a change in the tolerance level,” he said.

Spilka said the legislation also would make sure districts are accountable for responding to reports of bullying in a consistent, transparent way.

“Some districts are terrific with this,” she said. “Others may not have been as comprehensive.”

While some have called for stricter rules that would make all bullying a crime, Eldridge said education and training would likely be more successful.

“I think this is a balanced approach,” Spilka said.

(David Riley can be reached at 508-626-3919 or driley@cnc.com.)

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