Island schools make plans for anti-bullying law compliance


Island schools are up against a December 31 deadline to submit plans for bullying prevention and intervention to the state’s Department of Elementary and Secondary Education (DESE).

The requirement stems from a new law on bullying in schools signed by Massachusetts Governor Deval Patrick on May 3. As part of each school’s plan, not only students but also every one who works in their school or is involved with them, including their parents, must be trained to prevent, identify, and respond to bullying.

Since the law’s enactment, Island school administrators, faculty, parents, and other interested community members have worked diligently to formulate plans that include policies on bullying, cyber-bullying, and harassment in time to meet this month’s deadline.

“The policies, the plans, all of that, were really sent to us in model form from the Commonwealth,” Martha’s Vineyard Public Schools (MVPS) superintendent James Weiss said in a recent telephone interview. “In other words, we’re not going to argue over what the definition of bullying is; the law stated what the definition is. So we’re just putting it into our language, so to speak.”

The law defines bullying as repeated acts that cause physical or emotional harm, place students in reasonable fear of harm, or create an unwelcoming or hostile environment at school for another person, according to a press release from the Governor’s office.

The law also extends beyond the classroom to include so-called “cyber-bullying” incidents involving electronic communications, such as emails, text messages, and postings on online social networking sites. It also prohibits bullying on school grounds, on school buses, and at school-sponsored activities.

Legal mandates

The new law requires all school staff at public and private schools, including coaches, cafeteria workers, bus drivers, custodians, and other personnel, to report bullying they witness or are made aware of to the principal.

The law also requires principals to notify parents of both the bully and victim, referred to as the “aggressor” and the “target.” They also must notify local law enforcement authorities if they believe criminal charges may be warranted. The anti-bullying law, however, does not create any new criminal offenses, according to a legal update bulletin issued to state judicial and court officials last May.

Additionally, the new law tasks the Board of Elementary and Secondary Education to establish statewide academic standards that include instruction in bullying prevention. Schools, in turn, are required to provide age-appropriate instruction on bullying prevention.

Both public and private schools are now required to publish detailed bullying prevention, intervention, and notification plans in students handbooks.

The law also requires for each school district to provide professional development for all school administrators and personnel to prevent, identify and respond appropriately to bullying incidents. Since no additional funding will be made available to school districts to carry out the new law’s requirements, DESE is supposed to provide them with a no-cost solution.

“We have to train all of our staff, we have to train parents, we have to put curriculum in for every grade, and we’re getting exactly zero dollars,” Mr. Weiss said. “Now, for most of those things, in terms of the curriculum, we really have things in place. But there is still going to be a lot of work and a lot of effort to keep track of all of this stuff.”

Action on an anti-bullying bill by the House and Senate gained momentum following the deaths of South Hadley High School freshman Phoebe Prince and 11-year-old Carl Joseph Walker Hoover of Springfield. Each student committed suicide, after separate incidents of alleged bullying over the past year. Legislators approved the anti-bullying bill unanimously on April 29.

Since the governor signed it into law last May, Island schools began work on retooling current policies and coming up with new ones as needed.

Public schools process

The Martha’s Vineyard Public Schools (MVPS) currently include bullying in a harassment policy. The All-Island School Committee (AISC) approved the addition of a new policy on cyber-bullying in October 2009.

“Because of the new law and the definition that came to us from the state, there is harassment, which is one kind of activity, bullying, which is a different kind of activity, and cyber-bullying, which is bullying on the Internet and using various kinds of electronic means,” Mr. Weiss said. “Now we have to be more specific in our language.”

He presented draft policies to the AISC on October 28. The committee scheduled a third reading for a meeting last night.

“The bullying policies, that’s bullying, cyber-bullying and harassment, are all part of a larger document, which is the bullying prevention and intervention plan,” Mr. Weiss said. “That’s what’s required by the state by the end of the month. Our schools are working on those, and they’re due to me by the 17th, so that I can review them and then send them off to the department [DESE] by the end of the month.”

The policies were vetted through school advisory groups (SAGs) already in place at every elementary school and Martha’s Vineyard Regional High School (MVRHS). The groups include teachers, administrators, support staff, parents, students, and community representatives.

Mr. Weiss said since the SAGs represent all of a school’s stakeholders, it made sense for them to formulate the anti-bullying plans and policies, rather than create a new group.

Although a few members of the public have attended SAG meetings and commented on the new policies, Mr. Weiss said, “We’re really trying to get as much input as possible, and to be frank, we’d love more.”

The public schools have been working on bullying issues at many levels for a long time, Mr. Weiss said, and anti-bullying programs already are in place at most of them.

For example, Oak Bluffs School has an anti-bullying congress made up of 10 to 12 student representatives who meet weekly with school guidance counselors. At the regional high school, students trained as peer mediators help with bullying issues.

“However, we’re trying to keep the policies as consistent as possible across the Island, so that parents will have only one set of rules, regulations, to follow, and if they move from building to building or elementary school to high school, it won’t get confusing,” Mr. Weiss said.

Charter School efforts

At the Martha’s Vineyard Public Charter School (MVPCS), director Bob Moore said the board of trustees spearheaded a review of the school’s harassment policy last spring.

“The board brought together a task force composed of parents, teachers, school administrators, and trustees to review the policy and ask for input from all members of the school community,” Mr. Moore explained in an email to The Times. “The Task Force spoke to students, teachers, parents, and the Board of Trustees during the spring and fall of 2009.”

During that time, Mr. Moore said, the board discussed, reviewed, and revised the school’s “Harassment, Bullying and Retaliation Policy” and “Bullying and Retaliation Prevention and Intervention Protocol” at each of its monthly meetings. Over the past six months, Mr. Moore attended two workshops about the new bullying law.

“The Board continues to ask for input from community members by posting the documents on the school’s web site and informing the community that the document will be sent to the DESE following the December 8 Board of Trustees’ meeting,” Mr. Moore said.

The new anti-bullying law also requires that the governor of Massachusetts issue a proclamation every year designating the fourth Wednesday in January as a “No Name-Calling Day,” which falls on January 26 in 2011. Its purpose is to increase awareness of verbal bullying, encourage students to use positive dialogue, and pledge not to use hurtful names on that day.