Grieving family by his side, governor signs legislation

By Noah Bierman
Globe Staff / May 4, 2010

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Governor Deval Patrick signed an extensive antibullying law yesterday, as a family, still grieving an 11-year-old’s suicide, stood witness.

The signing ceremony was given an air of poignancy when Sirdeaner Walker took the podium beneath the Grand Staircase of the State House, among pronouncements from Patrick, Attorney General Martha Coakley, and other dignitaries.

“My son Carl took his life just over a year ago,’’ Walker said and received an extended ovation from more than 100 officials, advocates, and schoolchildren. “He was bullied with antigay remarks. And Phoebe Prince took her life just a few months ago after relentless and sexist bullying.’’

Walker, a Springfield mother who has become a national advocate against bullying, said the law would be a legacy to her son, Carl Joseph Walker-Hoover, as well as to Prince, a South Hadley student who hanged herself in January after ceaseless abuse from classmates.

The law, which advocates call one of the toughest in the nation, prohibits physical, emotional, and online taunting and mandates training for faculty and students. It requires school staff to notify parents about incidents and harassment under the umbrella of bullying behavior.

Lawmakers of all stripes were thrust into action after the deaths of Prince and Walker-Hoover prompted statewide soul-searching. Coakley said her office began training efforts last week in anticipation of the bill’s swift passage in the Legislature, which sent it to the governor Thursday.

Patrick, surrounded by 30 third-graders from East Brookfield Elementary School, sounded a theme echoed by several officials who spoke about the new law: While new protections and reporting requirements are important in elevating the issue and giving tools to schools and families, he said, they alone will not solve the problem.

“Bullying is not a normal piece of childhood,’’ he said. “Emotional and physical abuse is more than, as they say, kids just being kids.’’

Patrick and other lawmakers also emphasized the role students would have to play in ending the physical and emotional taunting. One group of teenagers who stood by the podium submitted legislation and spoke out at public hearings in favor of a statewide “No Name Calling Day’’ that was eventually included as part of the law. The annual public awareness day will be the fourth Wednesday in January.

Walker praised the new law and said she is also working to pass federal legislation that would, among other things, focus on added protections and tracking for groups most often targeted, including gay and disabled students.

“This is not about criminalizing bullying, but about preventing bullying through education,’’ said Walker, who hugged and caressed her 7-year-old son, Charles, and 5-year-old daughter, Gloria, as they fidgeted through the 35-minute ceremony.

“My son Carl was denied a lifetime of opportunities.’’

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