May 7th, 2010

Mass law and responsibility for bullying in schools

On May 3, Massachusetts Gov. Patrick signed into law (with much fanfare) S2404, a bill that languished until two headline-grabbing student suicides were traced to bullying by other students. Middle school student Carl Walker-Hoover hanged himself in 2009 and high school student Phoebe Prince did the same in Jan. 2010. Legislation was reflexively proposed to hold adults (educators, paraprofessionals, administrators, school nurses, cafeteria workers, etc.) responsible for stopping bullying when they see it or at least report it to the school principal. The principal, in turn, can decide to call or not to call law enforcement.

Back on March 18, the MA State House passed a version of the bill 148-0 in the aftermath of reports that Irish transplanted high school student Prince was still being mocked long after her death on social media sites by the same teens that had tormented and taunted her right up to her last day of life. A key factor in the South Hadley High story about Prince was that she allegedly reported her fear of being beaten by Flannery Mullins to a school administrator, according to court documents. Mullins, one of six students was subsequently arrested before he was suspended from school. Remarkably, the school superintendent, Gus Sayer, denied any knowledge of her plight prior to a week before her January suicide. This is the same superintendent who had parents demanding accountability removed by police during a televised March school board meeting. Remember that the school superintendent is the CEO of the school district and manages the site administrators, the principals.

The Massachusetts legislature, which ignored the anti-bullying Healthy Workplace Bill SB699 after a committee hearing in 2010, sprang into action belatedly on behalf of students with another unanimous vote, in the Senate, 38-0. Headlines cause reactionary votes.

By April 29, differing House and Senate versions of the bill were reconciled and the bill was sent to the Governor to become law on April 3.  The bill goes into effect during the 2011-12 school year.

The final bill is S2404 and you can read it in its entirety here. The heart of adult responsibility to act and not be passive do-nothing bystanders to student-on-student violence can be found in lines 123-135 of the text. All adult staff have to receive professional development training on recognizing bullying and ways to intervene. The law requires staff to report it to the principal or the school’s designated person. The principal must immediately investigate (no guidelines given).  The principal may, in turn, determine if the acts are criminal and if so, can call law enforcement. Everyone is to be notified — bullied student, accused bully, parents of all involved students.

The law pertains to both public AND private schools in the state.

In the new law, bullying is defined as the “repeated use by one or more students of a written, verbal or electronic expression or a physical act or gesture or any combination thereof, directed at a victim that: (i) causes physical or emotional harm to the victim or damage to the victim’s property; (ii) places the victim in reasonable fear of harm to himself or of damage to his property; (iii) creates a hostile environment at school for the victim; (iv) infringes on the rights of the victim at school; or (v) materially and substantially disrupts the education process or the orderly operation of a school … shall include cyber-bullying.”

For an enlightened view of how adult bullying affects student safety, read Dr. Spencer’s essay written exclusively for WBI — Stealing From Children.

The bill is not a feel-good bill for everyone. Proponents say it will allow physically abusive bullies to be held accountable. Opposition stems mainly from attorneys who warn the law may not pass constitutional muster. For example, many times parents of accused BULLIES have won lawsuits against school districts because their little bundle of joy is entitled to her or his freedom of speech.

This flies in the face of common sense in a world where the BULLIED are persecuted even worse when they expose the suffering endured at the hands of the unfettered expression of bullies’ speech. Where is the freedom to call for relief from persecution? Not only is this speech not protected, it leads to serious harm.

I had the occasion to hear Pepperdine University Law Professor Bernie James speak at a school bullying conference. His review of several court cases revealed that most state anti-bullying laws for kids do little to protect the bullied in that school districts are NEVER held accountable. So, just having a law is insufficient when the law is weak. Injustice is compounded when the BULLIES are given more rights by courts.

The law against workplace bullying (psychological harassment) in the province of Quebec is weak. A friend of ours who worked very hard for its enactment acknowledges the lack of employer sanctions in the law, but believes that at least the government there once upon a time declared that citizens deserve to work free of abuse.

That sentiment may be the best we can hope for from the Massachusetts law. It would be an improvement to have the law hold the district superintendents responsible for preventing and correcting bullying among students. That way, the CEO’s job depends on it.

Of course, the ideal solution would address the bullying among adults in schools where apparently the only focus is on the students.

Only two school districts have directly addressed the adult-adult problem. They have implemented the WBI/Work Doctor Blueprint to Prevent Workplace Bullying. They are Sioux City, Iowa and Desert Sands in La Quinta, California.


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This entry was posted on Friday, May 7th, 2010 at 7:05 pm and is filed under Employers Gone Wild: Doing Bad Things, Fairness & Social Justice Denied, Rulings by Courts. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. You can leave a response, or trackback from your own site.

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