EagleTribune.com, North Andover, MA

July 28, 2013

State anti-bullying law is toothless

By Daniel Adams, Sarah Black, Rory Mcann, Ruby Scalera and Sarina Tracy
New England Center For Investigative Reporting

---- — The Massachusetts anti-bullying law, hailed in 2010 as model legislation, is toothless and often ineffective, underfunded, hobbled by a lack of oversight and lacking requirements for tracking the number of bullying incidents, an investigation by the New England Center for Investigative Reporting has found.

While some school districts responded with strong anti-bullying initiatives after passage of the legislation, many other schools, with no money for programs and no enforcement of the law’s mandates, have done little more than file a plan and hold occasional school assemblies, say parents and groups working with students. They say the promise to address bullying, prompted by the suicides of two Massachusetts’ youths, has gone unfulfilled.

“So we have the law in place, but there’s no monitoring going on by the state or by anyone that can say, ‘Let’s see the data. Let’s see what’s going on,’ “ said Sirdeaner Walker, an advocate for anti-bullying programs who was at Gov. Deval Patrick’s side in 2010 when he signed the much-ballyhooed legislation.

She is the mother of Carl Joseph Walker-Hoover, who killed himself at age 11 in 2009. Walker says her son told her other students “were threatening to beat him up, threatening to kill him.”

“He couldn’t even eat lunch in the cafeteria, he had to eat lunch with the guidance counselor. He loved school. He was very, very smart. And I think that, in the right setting, he would have excelled and done very well,” she said.

His death spurred her to take action. But there is “resistance from superintendents to actually have an anti-bullying law in place,” she said from her home in Springfield. “I think it kind of ties into the fact that people did not want to track the incidents of bullying in their schools because for some schools, they see it as reflecting negatively.”

One rough measure of the law’s effectiveness can be gleaned from responses to two questions on a confidential “risk behaviors” survey of youth taken at random schools in odd years. The questions — have you been bullied at school in the last year, and have you been cyber-bullied — show 18 percent of high school students and 36 percent of middle school students report having been bullied in 2011. That is almost identical to results in 2009 — a year before the law was passed. (The question on cyber-bullying was not asked in 2009.)

While many experts suggest the numbers may reflect increased awareness, some who work with youth say the problem really is growing.

“Personally, I think bullying is up. Look at the technology — there’s a lot more cyber-bullying than there ever was before,” said Jodie Elgee, director of a Boston Public Schools program for bullies, victims and by-standers. “Reporting is up. Awareness is up. But we don’t have a baseline to say.”

The law does not require schools to gather statistics on bullying incidents and report them to the state. School staff must report individual bullying incidents to a principal, but school districts rarely compile, tabulate or analyze bullying data, making it impossible to determine the success of their programs.

The New England Center for Investigative Reporting filed formal requests with eight school districts asking for the number of students who were disciplined for bullying or the number of bullying incidents since September 2010.

NECIR submitted the requests under the state’s public records law to the Attleboro, Lawrence, Lowell, Nauset, New Bedford, Pittsfield, Springfield, and Worcester school districts. Of the eight, only Attleboro and Nauset provided the data. Attleboro reported a decrease in bullying incidents from 290 to 240 between the 2010-2011 school year and 2011-2012. Nauset reported an increase, from five incidents to 11 between those years in elementary and middle schools.

Lawrence and Springfield said they could try to compile the information, but only for a fee. New Bedford did not respond. The remaining districts said they do not compile statistics because the law does not require them.

Some argue such statistics are not necessary. “The school districts are asked to compile an awful lot of statistics. Adding one more is not, maybe, going to change the approach and how we’re dealing with it,” said Mary Lou Bergeron, assistant superintendent in Lawrence.

But a state attorney general’s commission set up in 2010 to review the law’s effectiveness has suggested the absence of reporting requirements be corrected. It proposed legislation now before the state Senate and House to require that schools compile and file bullying incident statistics with the state and conduct anonymous surveys among students every three years.

When the 2010 law was passed, Massachusetts was one of the last states to enact such legislation. The suicides of Carl Walker-Hoover in Springfield and Phoebe Prince, a 15-year-old who was hounded by peers after she entered South Hadley High School, spurred an outcry that propelled the bill through the Legislature.

The law required the state education department to publish a model program, which it has done online. But school districts were not required to adopt the model program. While some districts have taken the model and modified or expanded it in their schools, others have offered up homegrown programs of uncertain value.

All 403 Massachusetts school districts were required to file an anti-bullying program with the state, and with much publicity the state pressed the districts to meet deadlines for those filings. Since then, the plans have largely sat in file cabinets or electronic queues.

“We actually did not even have a requirement to review the plans,” said Jonathan C. Considine, a spokesman for the state Department of Elementary and Secondary Education. “We took it upon ourselves to sort of do a cursory review of the plans to make sure all the required elements were included in the plans. It was a courtesy we did for the districts.”

Considine said the state agency’s staff has helped conduct regional, professional and parent workshops and conferences with prosecutors. But mostly the issue of how vigorously the schools implement the programs is left to the schools themselves.

“Obviously, folks who know the students best, who can respond to any kind of incidents, are on the ground,” Considine said.

The Legislature, wary of costs, also did not provide money to the school districts to carry out the anti-bullying law. Some critics say that omission doomed the effort; others say it prompted administrators to work creatively within the schools or to seek outside grants.

“This is an unfunded mandate. If you’re not giving [schools] money, you know they’re not going to do anything,” said Nan Stein, a school violence and bullying researcher at Wellesley College, who testified against passage of the law. “They passed the law because two kids committed suicide. You could drive a truck through the holes in this bill.”

Stein still questions whether it was politics, not concern for the children, that produced the law. “I think it’s intended to placate the public. I think all these laws across the country are intended to placate the public as if this is the way to deal with school violence, which is a sham.”

Bergeron, the assistant superintendent of Lawrence schools, believes the law has helped to change attitudes.

“It’s really heightened everyone’s awareness of watching for and monitoring issues that might be bullying,” she said. “In the past if you saw something happen you might go, ‘Oh, they’re just fooling around.’ Now you’re going to say, ‘Wait a second, that’s not acceptable.’”

The New England Center for Investigative Reporting (www.necir-bu.org) is a nonprofit investigative reporting newsroom based at Boston University and supported in part by New England media outlets that include The Eagle-Tribune. More at: http://necir-bu.org.

Reporter Doug Struck and researcher Madelyn Powell contributed to this story.