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Massachusetts lawmakers moved a step closer Wednesday to approving a bill (PDF) designed to crack down on school bullies in the wake of two recent suicides of students whose families and friends said were the victims of intense bullying.
The bill prohibits bullying on school property, on school buses, or at school-sponsored activities. It also outlaws so-called cyberbullying by e-mail, the Internet or social media networks such as Twitter or Facebook.
The bill requires school staff to report incidents of bullying to the principal, who must investigate. Under the legislation schools must include bullying prevention in their curriculum.
"Every school in the commonwealth is going to be required to have bullying prevention and intervention plan," said House Education Committee Chair Marty Walz, D-Boston. "Every adult in the school community is going to be required to report bullying when they see it or become aware of it."
House and Senate lawmakers had each approved separate versions of the bill. The final version of the bill is expected to be approved Thursday by the House and Senate before heading to Gov. Deval Patrick, who supports the measure.
The push for the legislation gained momentum after the suicides of students in South Hadley and Springfield.
In January, 15-year-old Phoebe Prince killed herself after being bullied by a group of South Hadley classmates who used text messages and Facebook posts to add to their in-person intimidation, authorities said.
Last year, 11-year-old Carl Walker-Hoover hanged himself in his family's Springfield home. His mother, Sirdeaner Walker, said her son was bullied relentlessly by classmates at his charter school. She said they made fun of how he dressed, called him gay and threatened him.
South Hadley Rep. John Scibak (D) reflected on his town's incident and says the bill could eventually change the culture in schools.
"It may well be that if an incident similar to the one that occurred in January were to happen several years down the road, other students would have been able to stand up and change the ultimate outcome," Scibak said.
To help school staff better learn how to identify bullying, the bill requires schools to provide bullying training for staff.
The state Department of Elementary and Secondary Education would also be required to identify low-cost training options for teachers and develop bullying prevention and intervention plans for schools.
"We know schools want to stop bullying, but staff face difficulties in identifying bullying when it happens, particularly when it happens via the Internet," said Rep. Betty Poirier, R-North Attleboro.
The bill also includes stepped-up protections for children with autism and other special needs by helping the kids better handle and respond to incidents of bullying.
Republican lawmakers had pushed to toughen the bill by making it mandatory for principals to forward all reports of bullying to police and prosecutors and to include language that would have fined teachers and other school workers for not reporting bullies.
Those amendments were defeated during debate.
Rep. Walz said the passed version is tough enough.
"Both the House and the Senate had a very consistent approach to this," she said. "When it's appropriate to involve law enforcement, principals are required to do so."
This program aired on April 28, 2010. The audio for this program is not available.
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