Schools prodded on plans for bullies

37 districts whose compliance falls short are named

By Sarah Schweitzer
Globe Staff / March 10, 2011

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After eight months of preparation, 37 school districts submitted plans to the state that were missing a quarter or more of the provisions required by the antibullying law enacted last year by the Legislature.

The Department of Elementary and Secondary Education this week released a list of the school districts, which include suburban districts such as Newton and Milton, tiny Gosnold, and charter schools, such as the Mystic Valley Regional Charter School.

The state earlier had announced that more than a third of school districts had submitted incomplete plans, but had not named the schools. The state is planning, after additional review, to release a second list of schools whose plans are missing less than a quarter of the required elements.

School districts named by the state drew sharp criticism from Representative Marty Walz, the antibullying law’s chief author. “I am enormously frustrated that it’s March 2011, and we’re coming up on the one-year anniversary of the law and this many districts have not met the basic requirements of the law,’’ said Walz, a Democrat of Back Bay.

Several school district leaders said their plans’ omissions did not reflect a fundamental failure to meet the antibullying law’s requirements. Rather, they were paperwork oversights, they said.

“As I read through this, I am not saying, ‘Oh no, I haven’t done that,’ ’’ Paul Stein, Newton’s deputy superintendent, said of his reaction to receiving a letter from the state laying out the Newton plan’s deficiencies. “It’s a matter of describing it in more detail . . . and now I’ll send it to them.’’

But Walz said she would not be satisfied until plans are perfected

“I’m not buying it,’’ Walz said. “The state Legislature had to step in and pass a law because school districts were not doing what they needed to do. And now Newton and other places want me to take it on faith that they are doing what they are supposed to be doing? School districts have proven in too many instances that they are not doing the right thing and that there is bullying going on in schools.’’

Under the law, enacted after the suicide of Phoebe Prince, a 15-year-old from South Hadley who suffered a spate of bullying, school districts were required to submit comprehensive plans to combat bullying to the state by Dec. 31, a deadline that many schools raced to meet.

Private schools, with the exception of schools for special education students, were not required to submit plans.

Antibullying plans had to include: clear procedures for reporting and investigating bullying; the range of punishments that could be used against a bully; procedures for prompt notification of parents or guardians about bullying incidents; and provisions for staff training.

The law mandated that districts consider input for their plans from school staff, teachers, volunteers, parents, students, residents, and law enforcement. In many cases, school committees approved plans before they were submitted to the Department of Elementary and Secondary Education.

To aid school districts in preparing their plans, the Department prepared a model plan that officials posted on the state website in late August. In December, they posted a checklist that expanded on the model plan; it also was e-mailed to superintendents, according to JC Considine, a spokesman for the department.

As of yesterday, seven of the 37 districts had submitted revised plans. Considine said it was not clear whether the revised plans met the law’s requirements; a review was underway.

Several district leaders said the exercise of preparing the plan for the state was a useful one, and not a burden.

“This is how I look at it — it wasn’t good enough, and we’ll fix it, and we’ll continue to work at it until we’re successful,’’ said Marc Kerble, the Newburyport superintendent.

The missing detail from the plans varied across the districts. Newton’s plan, for example, lacked detail about what sort of antibullying training the district planned to provide to teachers, Stein said. (Among the district’s efforts was a training session held for teachers in December and led by Elizabeth Englander, a noted bullying expert; in their new submission, the district will detail the topics covered by Englander.)

Joseph McCleary, superintendent/director of Mystic Valley Regional Charter School in Malden, said his plan lacked details about how the school would handle false accusations of bullying.

“I think we did what a lot of schools did,’’ he said. “We figured, here’s our best effort to comply with a new law and we were waiting for feedback.’’

Sarah Schweitzer can be reached