School shocked by a suicide drafts tough policy on bullies

By Peter Schworm
Globe Staff / April 28, 2010

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South Hadley schools have drafted a new antibullying policy that requires all staff members to report “any bullying they see or learn about’’ and pledges to “promptly and reasonably’’ investigate any allegation of harassment.

The draft policy defines bullying as acts that cause physical or emotional harm, place students “in reasonable fear of harm,’’ or create an “unwelcoming or hostile environment at school for another person.’’

A task force formed after 15-year-old Phoebe Prince hanged herself in January. The panel crafted the policy and discussed it at its most recent meeting Monday. The 31-member group plans to complete the policy in the coming weeks.

In the three months before her death, prosecutors and others say, Prince was the target of relentless harassment by two groups of fellow students at South Hadley High School. School administrators have come under heavy criticism for not doing more to protect her.

Six former students at the school have pleaded not guilty to felony charges in connection with her death.

Northwest District Attorney Elizabeth Scheibel contends the students waged an unrelenting three-month harassment campaign against Prince, an Irish immigrant who entered South Hadley High last September. Scheibel has faulted administrators, saying they failed to recognize Prince’s troubles.

Prosecutors say that Prince spoke with a school administrator a week before she died about being threatened physically and told officials she was “scared and wanted to go home.’’ A witness told prosecutors that Prince returned to class and told a classmate that nothing was going to be done.

Prince had resorted to hiding in bathroom stalls and even asked friends if she could walk between them to guard against a sudden attack.

Shortly before she died, she texted a friend about “her despair at the ongoing taunting to which she was subjected,’’ prosecutors said.

Schools superintendent Gus Sayer has defended how the school handled the situation and insisted that officials learned of the bullying only a week before Prince’s death.

Since her death, school districts across the state have tackled the issue, calling in specialists, holding meetings, and devising antibullying strategies. Both houses of the state Legislature have unanimously approved separate antibullying bills, but progress on a compromise measure has stalled. Governor Deval Patrick has voiced support for antibullying legislation.

The House bill is more rigorous because it requires school employees to report bullying to the principal. If principals determine that the bullying is criminal, they would be obligated to report the case to law enforcement.

The bill also requires training for school officials to identify and respond to bullying.

In South Hadley, the four-page draft of the schools policy prohibits bullying — including off school grounds and online — if such actions create “a hostile environment at school for the victim, infringe on the rights of the victim at school, or materially and substantially disrupt the education process.’’

In the draft policy, the School Committee says it expects administrators to “make clear to students and staff that bullying will not be tolerated and will be grounds for disciplinary action up to and including suspension and expulsion for students, and termination for employees.’’

Principals would be responsible for handling all complaints.

The superintendent would be required to develop a system to report and investigate complaints and to notify parents and law enforcement, when necessary.

The draft calls for the school district to update the bullying prevention plan at least every two years and make an antibullying program part of the curriculum in each grade.

The district would notify students and parents in the student handbook each year about its antibullying policy.

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