Support swells for anti-bully legislation

Bills call for schools to respond aggressively

By James Vaznis
Globe Staff / November 15, 2009

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After years of delays, the Legislature appears poised to crack down on bullying among schoolchildren, with hearings beginning this week on nearly a dozen bills that would force local schools to respond more aggressively to instances of cruelty among students.

Similar bills have, in the past, failed repeatedly - even as the number of states with bullying-prevention statutes has grown to 37. But now a broad group of supporters, led by the Anti-Defamation League, are giving the effort the momentum it may need to finally push a measure through to passage.

The advocates are focusing their attention on a bill, sponsored by Representative John Rogers, a Democrat, that would require school districts to report bullying incidents and any discipline imposed to the state. The bill, one of those to be taken up at a hearing Tuesday, has the support of such groups as the Massachusetts Teachers Association, Microsoft Corp., and the Massachusetts Chiefs of Police Association.

The groundswell of support follows the bullying case this year of an 11-year-old boy, Carl Joseph Walker-Hoover, a student at a Springfield charter school whose classmates ridiculed him for how he dressed, saying he acted like a girl. He hanged himself with an electrical cord at his home in April, leaving behind a note in which he told his family that he loved them and gave his Pokemon games and cards to a 6-year-old brother.

“This is an urgent matter,’’ said the boy’s mother, Sirdeaner Walker, who supports the legislation. “There are other kids like my son Carl who are being bullied every day in school. It happens in every kind of school - urban, suburban, and private. . . . Schools say they are taking care of bullying problems, but they are not.’’

Another case that has drawn attention concerns a 12-year-old autistic boy from Cape Cod who went to his first dance at his school last year.

Dancing by himself, the seventh-grader moved awkwardly, but he was having the time of his life. “He’s no dance star, but he really gets into the music,’’ said his mother, Theresa Jackson, who chaperoned the dance and asked that her son’s name not be used.

Unbeknownst to both of them, a female student videotaped some of his moves on her cellphone and later posted it on YouTube. For the next several days, students posted comments mocking him and hurled insults at him at school.

According to Jackson, school officials did little to remedy the situation - the latest in a string of incidents in which students taunted and bullied the boy over a nearly two-year period, forcing him to change schools.

If bullying goes unaddressed, advocates say it can foster a sense of loneliness, depression, and anxiety in victims as well as instill thoughts of suicide - causing students to skip school, fall behind in class, or inflict harm upon themselves. The harassment sometimes leads victims to lash out violently at others; some school shootings across the nation over the last decade were at the hands of students who had been allegedly bullied.

Nearly a quarter of Massachusetts high school students reported being victims of bullying, while 14 percent admitted to bullying or pushing someone around, according to the state’s most recent survey of health and risk behaviors, which was released last year. In middle school, a smaller portion of students said they were bullied.

While many schools have adopted policies to address bullying, the quality and enforcement of the policies vary greatly, advocates said. The state Department of Elementary and Secondary Education does not have any formal guidelines on bullying policies, but recommends prevention programs upon request, said JC Considine, a spokesman.

The legislation gaining momentum at the State House would require the state to develop a model policy for local schools, which would be required to address both traditional bullying and cyberbullying - cruelty by computer.

Local schools also would have to document all cases of harassment, discrimination, intimidation, and bullying, and report on the resulting discipline. All incidents would then be reported to state education regulators, who would compile an annual report for the Legislature and periodically review each school’s policies and level of enforcement.

The stringent reporting requirements are raising concerns among some educators, because they say there is sometimes a fine line between bullying and innocuous teasing. “There is so much area for administrative confusion around the issue,’’ said Glenn Koocher, executive director of the Massachusetts Association of School Committees. “We want to make sure we can curb bullying in a way that is reasonable and effective.’’

Often the point of teasing is to be humorous, while bullying is an ongoing problem in which the intent is to hurt or have power over someone, said Elizabeth Englander, director of the Massachusetts Aggression Reduction Center at Bridgewater State College, which trains school staff on bullying-prevention tactics. The legislation would require annual training of school employees.

“Most kids are good at telling the difference, but it can be difficult for an observer,’’ Englander said.

Even Englander, however, is concerned that the reporting requirement could prompt some schools not to properly classify incidents as bullying to dodge the requirement and any negative attention it could bring. Children, she said, could suffer the ultimate consequence: not getting the help they need.

Soon after Emily Dale started her eighth-grade year at Swampscott Middle School, a boy in her class began calling her a four-eye freak. Emily tried ignoring the name-calling, but the boy kept it up, eventually turning to outright discrimination, making fun of her for being Jewish and lobbing derogatory sexual comments at her.

When Emily finally worked up the courage to report the incidents to school administrators, the bullying grew worse. Although the school disciplined the boy with a one-day suspension and barred him from a field trip, his friends rushed to his defense, berating Emily at school and online. “I felt like I was being punished,’’ Emily said. “I got messages on my Facebook page, saying I was a terrible person for telling on a boy so well liked.’’

The situation grew so bad that Emily, who is now a 10th-grader, eventually enrolled at a private school.

Maureen Bingham, Swampscott’s interim superintendent, said student privacy rights prevented her from commenting on the incident, which occurred well before her appointment to lead the district. However, she said the school system has long had bullying-prevention policies, and that each school runs programs to curb bullying. The problem, she said, is that not all students follow the rules. “I think the schools do a pretty good job, but it can always be better,’’ Bingham said. “I think it’s a challenge for every school district.’’

On the Cape, Theresa Jackson said her son is doing better now as an eighth-grader at another school in the Sandwich district, where students are more respectful. The Sandwich superintendent didn’t respond to interview requests. Jackson’s son has joined a committee that organizes school dances and serves as secretary of the group, she said, but he remains fearful of going to dances.

“He hasn’t had the courage to go to another one yet,’’ Jackson said, “but he keeps trying.’’