EagleTribune.com, North Andover, MA

May 31, 2013

Anti-bullying law changes pitched

By Colleen Quinn
State House News Service

---- — BOSTON — The state’s landmark anti-bullying law could see some changes to stiffen reporting requirements on school districts and create a recognition that certain students are more vulnerable to bullying.

Lawmakers on the Joint Committee on Education heard yesterday from advocates pushing to require school districts to collect data on bullying incidents and report the information to the state. The Department of Elementary and Secondary Education would then be required to review the data and publish an annual report containing aggregate, statewide information on the frequency and nature of bullying in schools, under the bill.

Schools would also be required to specify “enumerated categories of students” more likely to be bullied, under the legislation sponsored by the Sen. Sonia Chang-Diaz (D-Boston) and Rep. Alice Peisch (D-Wellesley), co-chairs of the Education Committee.

Under the bill, schools would put in their prevention plans a statement recognizing that certain students are vulnerable to bullying, including lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender students as well as students with special needs. Schools would also need to detail the steps they will take to create a safe environment for those students.

Similar legislation failed to pass in the Legislature last session, after clearing the Education Committee.

While advocates say it is the next step to enhance the tough 2010 anti-bullying law and help rid schools of the destructive behavior, opponents argue it would be another burden on school districts unable to comply with the law because it is unfunded.

The anti-bullying law required school districts to develop bullying prevention plans, put new restrictions on student use of technology to harass another person, and required teachers be trained to recognize and intervene in bullying cases. Some critics charge it was an unfunded mandate that failed to provide the resources for local school districts to train teachers and staff.

A commission was also created to consider additional changes to the law to further address the problem in schools. The commission, chaired by Attorney General Martha Coakley, met seven times, holding hearings across the state.

Coakley told lawmakers during the hearing yesterday the proposed changes are important adjustments to the law.

The data collection and reporting provision would enable state officials to determine the effectiveness of school district efforts to prevent bullying, she said.

“Data from schools themselves and data from students will give us a much better picture about the extent of bullying that is going on,” Coakley said.

Brian Camenker, executive director of MassResistance, argued if the anti-bullying law is not working, then adding to it will not help.

“You know Massachusetts went through an emotional trauma over this,” Camenker told lawmakers. “I think there needs to be a reason publicly why this isn’t working if it’s not working. And a real study of what needs to happen if it’s not working, rather than just more of this same kind of testimony from special interest groups.”

Preventing bullying burrowed into the public consciousness after a handful of high-profile cases, including the suicide of Phoebe Prince, a 15-year-old Irish immigrant living in South Hadley. Prince hanged herself on Jan. 14, 2010 after months of unrelenting taunting from fellow students upset about who she was dating. Five teens were indicted on charges connected to Prince’s suicide, including violating her civil rights and criminal harassment. They ultimately pleaded guilty to criminal harassment and were sentenced to probation and community service.

Prince’s death and that of 11-year-old Carl Joseph Walker-Hoover, a Springfield boy who killed himself after being persistently called “gay,” gave the anti-bullying law momentum.

“I think the real problem is it is a terrible unworkable law that was pushed through in a climate of hysteria,” Camenker said.

Parents and bullied students testified Thursday the law did not go far enough to protect vulnerable children.

Hung Nguyen, of Dorchester, described himself as a proud, gay Asian whose sexuality led to bullying in school. He told committee members he was repeatedly pushed against lockers; had spitballs thrown at him on the bus; and was jumped by other students walking home from school. On one occasion, Nguyen said, all he remembers is blood streaming down his face.

Roger Bourgeois, an assistant superintendent in the Boston public schools, described the depression his son dealt with as the result of bullying. His son was bullied from the second grade until he was a junior in high school when it culminated in an unsuccessful suicide attempt.

For six months when his son was in high school, Bourgeois said he would wake up every morning and “go into his room to check to make sure he was still alive.”

Bourgeois pleaded with lawmakers to strengthen the bullying law.

Bourgeois son’s was convinced he would be better off dead because of the bullying. One day after school he told his parents “you don’t understand, I am broken and I can’t be fixed,” Bourgeois said, adding he tried to convince his son the problem could be fixed.

“He got up from table, unscrewed a light bulb from a lamp, and crushed it. Blood dripping from his hand, he looked at my wife and I and said ‘Dad, Mom, can you fix this light bulb?” Bourgeois said.