Massachusetts activists largely applaud strengthened anti-bullying law

by Peter Cassels

EDGE Media Network Contributor

Wednesday September 15, 2010

With the start of the school year, a new law affords Massachusetts' LGBT elementary and secondary school students better protections against bullying.

Governor Deval Patrick on May 3 signed into law on a bill that strengthens the commonwealth's previous statute against abuse and harassment in schools.

Although disappointed the law doesn't contain enumerative language on sexual orientation and gender identity and expression, activists say the new statute goes a long way towards preventing anti-LGBT abuse and harassment.

The law bans bullying in schools, on school buses and through cell phones, e-mail, social networking sites and other electronic devices and media.

It also includes a number of provisions aimed at preventing bullying before it starts. It mandates annual training for teachers and staff on prevention and intervention, and requires age-appropriate instruction on heading off bullying for students in every grade as part of the school curriculum.

All schools must develop prevention and intervention plans that include clear procedures for students, educators and parents to investigate, report and respond to bullying.

Activists credit state Rep. Martha Walz (D-Boston), chair of the House's Joint Committee on Education, and Robert Trestan of the Anti-Defamation League's New England regional office as key players in making the law a reality.

Advocates had fought for a stronger anti-bullying law for years, but the recent suicides of two students brought additional public pressure on the Legislature to act.

As EDGE previously reported, Carl Joseph Walker-Hoover, an 11-year-old from Springfield, hanged himself in April 2009 after classmates harassed him because they perceived he was gay. And Phoebe Prince, a 15-year-old straight high school student from South Hadley, took her own life in January of this year after female classmates teased her.

A 50-member coalition of organizations lobbied lawmakers to enact the bill and worked with them closely as the measure worked its way through the Joint Committee on Education and was debated on the floor of the House and state Senate.

One was MassEquality, an organization that successfully defended the commonwealth's marriage law against efforts to get the Legislature to put the issue before voters after the Supreme Judicial Court handed down its historic ruling in 2003.

MassEquality has broadened its mission in recent years in a joint effort with the Boston-based Gay and Lesbian Advocates and Defenders to promote marriage for same-sex couples throughout New England and advance LGBT rights. Kara Suffredini, executive director of MassEquality, described the anti-bullying law to EDGE as "a significant advance in the effort to prevent bullying and ensure schools are a place where students can learn and grow in a safe environment."

She cautioned, however, the lack of enumerative language specifically protecting LGBT youth is a weakness and school officials who often don't recognize that kind of bullying is unacceptable.

"Massachusetts remains behind at least a dozen other states whose anti-bullying laws have explicit protections for LGBT youth in schools," Suffredini said adding [anti-bullying laws] "are necessary to ensure that harassment is not overlooked or disregarded, as anti-LGBT activity has been historically."

According to the 2003 Youth Risk Behavior Survey, anti-gay bullying and harassment was the most common form of bullying in Massachusetts schools. The 2007 survey showed high school students who identify as LGBT were twice as likely than their straight peers to report being bullied. And they were nearly five times as likely to attempt suicide.

Both MassEquality and GLAD pointed out the Massachusetts Department of Elementary and Secondary Education has taken steps to address LGBT issues as it develops the mandatory training program for teachers and staff.

"The model plan they put together is an incredibly strong template that really encourages the school districts to issue priority statements that recognize certain groups of students, such as LGBTs, the homeless and those with disabilities," Karen Loewy, senior staff attorney at GLAD, told EDGE in a phone interview. "Those are the students most commonly targeted and are more vulnerable to teasing and harassment."

Each school district must implement its own bullying prevention plan and the districts can't just "wholesale the model," explained Loewy. "When a district is implementing its plan, it has to be a collaborative process," she added. "They must talk with parents, teachers, administrators and other community members."

While the Legislature didn't include funding to develop and implement the training program, it required the Department of Elementary and Secondary Education provide information to the districts about low or no-cost professional development resources.

"There's an institute at Bridgewater State College that does exactly that kind of training," reported Loewy.

Suffredini said MassEquality is committed to ensuring the research school districts must undertake when they develop and implement training programs addresses LGBT issues. She said her organization also will work with the Legislature to address funding training costs and any other concerns-the statute requires state education officials inform legislative leaders on the estimated costs.

"We will continue to be in conversation with those who championed this bill, letting them know what we're hearing on the ground about what's working and what needs correcting," emphasized Suffredini. "We will continue to seek the Legislature's leadership in ensuring that all youth, including LGBTs, enjoy a safe place to learn in Massachusetts."

Peter Cassels is a recipient of the National Lesbian and Gay Journalists Association's Excellence in Journalism award. His e-mail address is [email protected].

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