BOSTON — Earlier this year an 11-year-old girl at Fitzgerald Elementary School in Waltham began harassing her fifth grade classmates, according to parents of children at the school. The district attorney is withholding the name of the alleged bully.
The girl was charged with three counts of assault with a dangerous weapon. She allegedly kicked a boy in the genitals, and with her shoes on that constitutes a felony. Parents say she slammed another girl’s arm in a locker and also threatened to cut her with a pair of scissors. The principal gave the alleged bully one day of in-school suspension. When parents complained that punishment was too light, the mayor and City Councilor Tom Curtin stepped in and called the police.
“The level of what occurred put us in a position where it had to be a criminal case,” Curtin said. “This child is not only dangerous to other children, but to herself as well. It’s a pattern of behavior that shows that there’s more than day-to-day intervention involved that’s needed here.”
This case in Waltham happened before the new anti-bullying law. The new law takes a wide ranging approach to prevention and intervention. The new law spells out clearly that principals should notify police if they have reasonable basis to believe that criminal charges can be filed against the aggressor.
“If I pick up a crayon and throw it at somebody, it can be a dangerous weapon,” said Sam Goldberg, a defense lawyer who criticizes the new law. “It’s going to be a highway to the criminal justice system, to be accused of any kind of bullying in any school.”
State Rep. Marty Walz, who authored the law, said, “It may or may not lead to more prosecutions, I don’t have a crystal ball anymore than you or anyone else does.” She said all cases must still be resolved by the school, whether or not they are reported to police as well.
The law doesn’t create a new class of crimes called bullying, but it does put more pressure on school administrators to report cases to police. Walz defends the law, saying it will keep kids safe. She said she wants to see appropriate reporting to police.
“Ultimately, what the law is focused on is prevention of bullying,” Walz said. “So if districts are doing what our hope is they will do, there will be a significant decrease in the amount of bullying that is going on in our schools.”
But right now schools are hearing more complaints about bullying, said Tom Scott, head of the Massachusetts Association of School Superintendents.
“There is such a heightened anxiety around this issue that we certainly are seeing a large number of complaints coming from parents, from students, about issues they might define as bullying,” he said.
Scott said there is still debate about what constitutes bullying, because right now any conflict that takes place is getting labeled as bullying.
That doesn’t surprise Isabel Raskin, of the Juvenile Justice Center at Suffolk University. She is reminded of another school violence issue where administrators overreacted.
“After Columbine what ended up happening was, any kid, if there was a thought or a hit list or they drew a picture, and there was a picture with a gun, all of those cases ended up going to court,” Raskin said. “And I fear the same thing is going to happen now because bullying is on everybody’s radar screen.”
Bullying is on the radar screen because 15-year-old Phoebe Prince committed suicide after allegedly being harassed by classmates in South Hadley. Nine teens have been charged. Defense attorney Goldberg says the new law will affect many cases that are much less serious than the Prince case.
“The statute is so vague that when they give the statute to their lawyers to advise them of what to do, the lawyer — if they are looking out for the school’s liability — is going to always say, ‘Call the police!’ ” Goldberg said.
The superintendents association says that’s not happening at the moment, but Curtin is worried about it, too.
“I think it will definitely increase reporting because teachers, administrators, school nurses, city officials are not going to want to err on the side of not reporting,” Curtin said.
There is no penalty for not reporting, but school administrators may fear lawsuits. We may never know how many bullying cases across the state are reported to police, because the new law doesn’t require districts to keep track and tell the Department of Education.