- The Washington Times - Monday, March 15, 2010

Prompted by the recent suicides of two students, Massachusetts state House lawmakers on Monday will review a bill that would add bullying prevention to statewide education goals and hold schools responsible for bullying problems.

The bill, passed unanimously by the state Senate on Thursday, requires schools to implement procedures for reporting, investigating and determining punishment for bullying, including notifying law enforcement. Although the bill does not criminalize bullying, it will make schools accountable for bullying if they do not report or take action against such behavior.

“There’s a requirement that officials report. If they don’t, they are liable,” said state Sen. Robert O’Leary, a Democrat and chairman of the Joint Committee on Education, which crafted the bill.

The bill will be reviewed Monday by the state House Ways and Means Committee. If the committee approves the bill, it will then go on to a vote in the state House. State Reps. Jennifer Benson and Katherine Clark, both Democrats and members of the Joint Committee on Education, said the anti-bullying bill has wide support and is expected to pass in the committee and the House.

Although Miss Benson said the bill is likely to be amended, Miss Clark did not anticipate many changes. On Friday, Miss Benson said she thinks the bill would go to the House for a vote sometime this week.

Initially, the bill included a section that would criminalize malicious, libelous printed material that criticized groups for their national origin, ancestry, sex, sexual orientation or disability. The section was removed before voting, a result, some say, came about after public backlash.

“This was all propelled by the special interest groups,” said Brian Camenker, president of MassResistance, a family values organization in Massachusetts that thought the section was an attempt to silence criticism of the gay movement.

Mr. O’Leary said the Senate ultimately didn’t want to identify specific groups to be protected in the bill and decided to remove the section to accommodate everyone affected by bullying. “We didn’t want to go there,” he said.

The Senate did amend the bill to include in the provisions of school staff professional development, research findings that provide “information about specific categories of students who have been shown to be particularly at risk for bullying in the school environment.”

Candy Cushman, an education analyst for conservative group Focus on the Family, said some anti-bullying legislation can justify the pro-gay curriculum by including it in anti-bullying laws which specify gender, racial and homosexuality hate crimes.

“Policies that single out certain characteristics for special protections are counterproductive. They put the focus on the wrong place — on the characteristics of the victim, rather than where the focus should be on the wrong actions of the bullies,” she said.

Still, Mr. Camenker said the anti-bullying bill is not particularly necessary. “Everything the state law is suggesting is something that the Department of Education can do on their own,” he said.

The bill does go beyond school action against bullying. An amendment, adopted by the Senate, seeks to broaden the state’s laws to accommodate cyberbullying problems by adding a list of electronic media, including instant messaging, to stalking and criminal harassment laws.

Another amendment allows a commission to research state laws and determine whether they need to be changed to address bullying and cyberbullying. The commission also would investigate parental liability for bullying.

“This bill would definitely add penalties to children that bully,” said Rep. Rosemary Sandlin, a Democrat and member of the Joint Committee on Education.

MyFox Boston reported that a recent poll found that 61 percent of voters would support making bullying a crime and 48 percent thought parents of bullies should be punished as well.

Richard Niece, author of “The Side-Yard Superhero” and the article, “Confronting Bully-ism” said bullying is best handled locally, and there should be legislation to hold people accountable if bullying is not taken care of on a local level. But, he said, parents must be held accountable if their child has a bullying problem.

“I think parents are the role models and at some point somebody has to take responsibility for a child’s behavior,” he said.

• Casey Curlin can be reached at ccurlin@washingtontimes.com.

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