Bullying bill OK’d in House, 148 to 0
Advocates praise late changes in measure
The Massachusetts House, after an emotional debate, unanimously approved a bill yesterday that seeks to curtail bullying in schools and in cyberspace, mirroring similar legislation passed last week by the Senate.
House lawmakers, as senators did last week, invoked the deaths of Phoebe Prince, 15, of South Hadley and Carl Joseph Walker-Hoover, 11, of Springfield, who committed suicide after allegedly being bullied in separate incidents over the past year.
“This bill aims to secure our students from bullying, both during the school day and after school hours,’’ House Speaker Robert A. DeLeo said in a statement. “In light of recent tragedies, the House has taken the appropriate steps to protect our students from the terror of bullying and cyber-bullying.’’
The legislation will now have to be reconciled in committee between the House and Senate. Governor Deval Patrick has indicated he will sign the bill.
Earlier in the day, proponents of the anti bullying bill criticized the measure that emerged from the House Ways and Means Committee, which they said would have stripped away vital protections.
But after the 148-to-0 vote, they said the House passed more effective legislation than the Senate.
“It’s a stunning turnaround,’’ said Derrek L. Shulman, regional director of the Anti-Defamation League of New England. “They took a bill that was so weak this morning, one that we considered opposing after years of working on this, and made it stronger than the Senate’s bill.’’
He and other advocates said the bill was an improvement because it requires school officials — bus drivers, cafeteria workers, teachers, and others — to report bullying to a school’s principal.
The bill defines bullying, in part, as “the repeated use by a perpetrator of a written, verbal, or electronic expression, or physical act or gesture . . . directed at a victim that causes physical or emotional harm or damage to the victim’s property; places the victim in reasonable fear or harm to himself or of damage to his property; [or] creates a hostile environment at school.’’
If principals determine that the bullying constitutes a criminal act, they would be required to report the incident to law enforcement.
The measure, however, does not include a mandatory fine for school employees who do not report bullying, as one amendment introduced yesterday called for.
Some lawmakers said the lack of such of fine made the proposed law toothless; while others said that any official who does not report an incident would be subject to being fired.
The advocates added that the House version is an improvement because it requires school officials to undergo training to identify and respond to bullying, in person and online. That requirement will not take effect until the 2011-12 academic year.
Representative Martha M. Walz, a Boston Democrat and House chairwoman of the Joint Committee on Education, said it was not clear how much it will cost to train school employees across Massachusetts. She said the costs will be borne by the state Department of Elementary and Secondary Education.
“We’re not talking about millions of dollars,’’ Walz said, noting that they had an initial draft budget of $150,000 for training.
The bill also requires officials at some private schools where the public subsidizes special needs students to report bullying and undergo training; whereas the Senate bill, which made reporting and training optional, includes all private schools.
“The House bill is a very strong antibullying bill, and we’re very grateful that the leadership heard our concerns,’’ said Arline Isaacson, cochairwoman of the Massachusetts Gay & Lesbian Political Caucus, which has long lobbied for such a bill. “This will help thousands of kids across the state.’’
In a news conference after the bill passed, DeLeo said he decided to make changes in the legislation approved by the Ways and Means Committee after hearing from Walz and other members at a meeting earlier in the day.
“I was bullied, actually,’’ DeLeo joked. “No, I listened to the members.’’
The earlier version lacked the reporting mandate and the required training.
Ways and Means chairman Charles A. Murphy did not return calls to explain why he voted for a significantly different bill than the one that emerged from his committee.
In a statement, he said: “Our schools need to be free from bullying in all forms — whether it comes on school grounds, away from school, or over cyberspace. With our actions today, we’re putting school officials, teachers, parents, and students on notice that bullying will not be allowed to interfere with a child’s ability to get an education.’’
David Abel can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.