Massachusetts Legislature to Hold Hearing on School Bullying

On Tuesday, November 17, the Massachusetts Joint Committee on
Education will hold a hearing on several pending anti-bullying
bills. Massachusetts is one of only about a dozen states without an
anti-bullying law. Family Equality Council
works at both the state and federal levels to pass anti-bullying
laws that include protections for children of LGBT parents, and we
are working to ensure that the Massachusetts legislature passes a
family-inclusive safe schools law in 2010. Tuesday’s hearing is
open to the public and will be at 1:00pm in Hearing Room A1 in the
Massachusetts State House. Family Equality Council’s Director of
Public Policy and Community Engagement, Kara Suffredini, will be on
hand tweeting from the hearing. Follow her on Twitter at

This article is cross posted at
The Boston Globe
By James Vaznis
Globe Staff / November 15, 2009

Support swells for anti-bully legislation

Bills call for schools to respond aggressively

After years of delays, the Legislature appears poised to crack down
on bullying among schoolchildren, with hearings beginning this week
on nearly a dozen bills that would force local schools to respond
more aggressively to instances of cruelty among students.
Similar bills have, in the past, failed repeatedly –
even as the number of states with bullying-prevention statutes has
grown to 37. But now a broad group of supporters, led by the
Anti-Defamation League, are giving the effort the momentum it may
need to finally push a measure through to passage.The advocates are
focusing their attention on a bill, sponsored by Representative
John Rogers, a Democrat, that would require school districts to
report bullying incidents and any discipline imposed to the state.
The bill, one of those to be taken up at a hearing Tuesday, has the
support of such groups as the Massachusetts Teachers Association,
Microsoft Corp., and the Massachusetts Chiefs of Police

The groundswell of support follows the bullying case this year of
an 11-year-old boy, Carl Joseph Walker-Hoover, a student at a
Springfield charter school whose classmates ridiculed him for how
he dressed, saying he acted like a girl. He hanged himself with an
electrical cord at his home in April, leaving behind a note in
which he told his family that he loved them and gave his Pokemon
games and cards to a 6-year-old brother.

“This is an urgent matter,’’ said the boy’s mother,
Sirdeaner Walker, who supports the legislation. “There are other
kids like my son Carl who are being bullied every day in school. It
happens in every kind of school – urban, suburban, and private. . .
. Schools say they are taking care of bullying problems, but they
are not.’’

Another case that has drawn attention concerns a 12-year-old
autistic boy from Cape Cod who went to his first dance at his
school last year.

Dancing by himself, the seventh-grader moved awkwardly, but he was
having the time of his life. “He’s no dance star, but he really
gets into the music,’’ said his mother, Theresa Jackson, who
chaperoned the dance and asked that her son’s name not be

Unbeknownst to both of them, a female student videotaped some of
his moves on her cellphone and later posted it on YouTube. For the
next several days, students posted comments mocking him and hurled
insults at him at school.

According to Jackson, school officials did little to remedy the
situation – the latest in a string of incidents in which students
taunted and bullied the boy over a nearly two-year period, forcing
him to change schools.

If bullying goes unaddressed, advocates say it can foster a sense
of loneliness, depression, and anxiety in victims as well as
instill thoughts of suicide – causing students to skip school, fall
behind in class, or inflict harm upon themselves. The harassment
sometimes leads victims to lash out violently at others; some
school shootings across the nation over the last decade were at the
hands of students who had been allegedly bullied.

Nearly a quarter of Massachusetts high school students reported
being victims of bullying, while 14 percent admitted to bullying or
pushing someone around, according to the state’s most recent
survey of health and risk behaviors, which was released last year.
In middle school, a smaller portion of students said they were

While many schools have adopted policies to address bullying, the
quality and enforcement of the policies vary greatly, advocates
said. The state Department of Elementary and Secondary Education
does not have any formal guidelines on bullying policies, but
recommends prevention programs upon request, said JC Considine, a

The legislation gaining momentum at the State House would require
the state to develop a model policy for local schools, which would
be required to address both traditional bullying and cyberbullying
– cruelty by computer.

Local schools also would have to document all cases of harassment,
discrimination, intimidation, and bullying, and report on the
resulting discipline. All incidents would then be reported to state
education regulators, who would compile an annual report for the
Legislature and periodically review each school’s policies and
level of enforcement.

The stringent reporting requirements are raising concerns among
some educators, because they say there is sometimes a fine line
between bullying and innocuous teasing. “There is so much area
for administrative confusion around the issue,’’ said Glenn
Koocher, executive director of the Massachusetts Association of
School Committees. “We want to make sure we can curb bullying in
a way that is reasonable and effective.’’

Often the point of teasing is to be humorous, while bullying is an
ongoing problem in which the intent is to hurt or have power over
someone, said Elizabeth Englander, director of the Massachusetts
Aggression Reduction Center at Bridgewater State College, which
trains school staff on bullying-prevention tactics. The legislation
would require annual training of school employees.

“Most kids are good at telling the difference, but it can be
difficult for an observer,’’ Englander said.

Even Englander, however, is concerned that the reporting
requirement could prompt some schools not to properly classify
incidents as bullying to dodge the requirement and any negative
attention it could bring. Children, she said, could suffer the
ultimate consequence: not getting the help they need.

Soon after Emily Dale started her eighth-grade year at Swampscott
Middle School, a boy in her class began calling her a four-eye
freak. Emily tried ignoring the name-calling, but the boy kept it
up, eventually turning to outright discrimination, making fun of
her for being Jewish and lobbing derogatory sexual comments at

When Emily finally worked up the courage to report the incidents to
school administrators, the bullying grew worse. Although the school
disciplined the boy with a one-day suspension and barred him from a
field trip, his friends rushed to his defense, berating Emily at
school and online. “I felt like I was being punished,’’ Emily
said. “I got messages on my Facebook page, saying I was a
terrible person for telling on a boy so well liked.’’

The situation grew so bad that Emily, who is now a 10th-grader,
eventually enrolled at a private school.

Maureen Bingham, Swampscott’s interim superintendent, said
student privacy rights prevented her from commenting on the
incident, which occurred well before her appointment to lead the
district. However, she said the school system has long had
bullying-prevention policies, and that each school runs programs to
curb bullying. The problem, she said, is that not all students
follow the rules. “I think the schools do a pretty good job, but
it can always be better,’’ Bingham said. “I think it’s a
challenge for every school district.’’

On the Cape, Theresa Jackson said her son is doing better now as an
eighth-grader at another school in the Sandwich district, where
students are more respectful. The Sandwich superintendent didn’t
respond to interview requests. Jackson’s son has joined a
committee that organizes school dances and serves as secretary of
the group, she said, but he remains fearful of going to dances.

“He hasn’t had the courage to go to another one yet,’’
Jackson said, “but he keeps trying.’’