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Kevin Cullen

Tough act too hollow

By Kevin Cullen
Globe Columnist / June 15, 2010

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Fran Thomas Jr. was sitting in his office the other day, trying to figure out how he was going to find the money to send some of his staff to Worcester next week so they could be trained on how to implement the state’s new antibullying law.

It costs $145 per person, which is about $145 more than Fran Thomas, the principal at Memorial Middle School in Fitchburg, has lying around.

“At least the lunch is included,’’ he said.

You may remember that, a couple of months ago, Governor Deval Patrick signed a bill that legislative leaders said put Massachusetts on the cutting edge of combating the scourge of bullying. The new law was hailed as the best in the nation.

But when you talk to principals, the ones who are going to have to implement the new law, the reviews are not quite as rave. A lot of them don’t feel any better equipped to handle bullies than they were before the law passed.

Take Fran Thomas. For the past 10 years, he’s been principal at Memorial. Thomas was all for the Legislature getting tough on bullying, but when he read the law he couldn’t understand why everybody up on Beacon Hill was patting each other on the back.

“Do you know what I call the new law?’’ he said. “I call it ‘The Principal’s Paperwork Act of 2010.’ ’’

Thomas says the new law gives school administrators all the responsibilities and none of the tools to seriously reduce the kind of bullying that drove an 11-year-old boy from Springfield named Carl Walker-Hoover and a 15-year-old girl in South Hadley named Phoebe Prince to suicide in the past 14 months.

“The Legislature did not add bullying to the list of things that can get a kid expelled. So the most I can do to a bully is suspend them for 10 days. Expulsion is a real deterrent, but it’s not in there.

“I cannot press charges if a student assaults another student as part of a pattern of bullying. The victim has to. A lot of times, the victim and their family don’t want to. But my hands are tied.

“If a kid brings alcohol to school, I can expel them. If they bully another kid, if they make that kid’s life a living hell, I can’t do more than suspend for 10 days. That’s crazy. That’s not taking bullying seriously.

“Let me tell you what this new law will do: nothing. With no new funding, the schools with money will get more training than the poorer schools. Anybody who tells you different is kidding themselves. Everybody who works in schools knows this is true. But even with all the training in the world, this law doesn’t allow principals to get tough with bullies.

“We can’t administer any more consequences than we could before, and there is no accountability for parents, no legal repercussions for them, only the schools. Parents of the smart bullies will stick up for them and deny, obfuscate, and we’ll be in the same boat. Except I’ll have to fill out more reports.’’

As if he didn’t have enough to worry about in the hallways, Thomas now has to police cyberspace.

“The law defines cyberbullying to include someone impersonating someone else online to cause harm,’’ Thomas said. “How the heck am I going to figure out if someone is impersonating someone else online?’’

Legislative leaders say they put together the best package available, and there is a consensus that mandatory reporting and mandatory training will ferret out more bullies. But principals, not legislators, are on the front lines, and Fran Thomas is hardly alone as he casts a cold eye on a new law.

“I know this isn’t popular to say, but here goes: The new law is a no-cost, feel-good response to a serious problem,’’ Thomas said. “I’m going to generate a lot more paperwork, but I don’t think I’ll be able to make kids much safer.’’

Kevin Cullen is a Globe columnist. He can be reached at cullen@globe.com.

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