Telegram & Gazette: As bullying bill nears, more stories emerge

April 16, 2010
By Priyanka Dayal

NORTHBORO –  After Jenn Millar’s father died, she dealt with more than grief and sorrow.

“People made fun of me,” the eighth-grader said.

Classmates posted comments online and in text messages teasing Jenn, saying her father probably faked getting sick and no one would want her for a daughter.

“Who does that? Who takes the time to do that?” she said in an interview yesterday.

Jenn and several other students at Robert E. Melican Middle School have joined a group called Teachers, Administrators and Students for Kids, which aims to improve the way students treat one another. Students say bullying is a problem as much here as it is anywhere, and with the help of adults – including legislators – they are hoping to change that.

“A lot of kids don’t really take the time to realize the bullying that’s going on,” said Jenn, 14. “They’re afraid, or they don’t know who to say it to.”

Conor O’Shea, 13, says TASK students are trying to set positive examples and are available for students who need to talk about a bullying problem. Adults at the middle school are supportive, but “we need more kids to be supportive,” he said.

“I’ve been bullied,” said Conor, who is in eighth grade. “You feel horrible … I know kids who don’t come to school because of it.”

Many students at the middle school wrote letters to state Sen. James B. Eldridge, D-Acton, in support of bullying legislation. Yesterday, they met with the senator, who told the students their letters “made a dramatic difference” to lawmakers.

Both the House and the Senate have passed bullying bills. A conference committee of representatives and senators, including Mr. Eldridge, are merging the two bills for final passage later this month.

Both bills outlaw bullying in schools and aim to curb harassment that is verbal, physical or electronic, and causes students harm. The Senate bill suggests that school employees be trained so they can identify and respond to bullying; the House bill requires such training but says it should be available for free.

The Senate bill would require school employees to report bullying incidents to school principals, while the House version calls for the Department of Elementary and Secondary Education to develop reporting regulations.

Lawmakers have pointed to the story of 15-year-old Phoebe Prince of South Hadley, who committed suicide after facing incessant bullying, as a reason why legislation is necessary. Several South Hadley students are facing criminal charges in the case.

The conference committee is still debating the details of the bill, including how to define bullying, Mr. Eldridge told students.

Joe Mccuine, a seventh-grader, told the senator students are trying to come up with productive ways to stop bullying. Hanging “stop bullying” posters in school hallways won’t necessarily stop bullies, he said.

Many students said they were touched by a recent visit from John Halligan of Vermont, whose 13-year-old son committed suicide after being bullied. Jenna Ferrini is one of those students, but she said the impact of Mr. Halligan’s talk, in January, has faded.

“We learn things, but we keep forgetting them,” said Jenna, an eighth-grader.

Administrators at the middle school said they have kept the issue of bullying at the forefront. Assistant Principal Michelle T. Karb started the TASK group last summer to address bullying and other issues.

Bullying starts when children are young and continues into high school, but it peaks in middle school, when students “get hooked in with technology,” Ms. Karb said. “Mentally, many are not ready for that.”

Northboro adopted a bullying policy in 2005. It defines bullying as “the use of power by one or more individuals over another to intentionally cause harm.” The policy requires an investigation of bullying incidents and disciplinary actions, if necessary.

To comply with the new state bullying law, which is expected to be signed by the governor, Ms. Karb said the middle school will formalize and make more transparent the steps that already exist to deal with bullying. Teachers may go through additional training, she said.

Teachers and administrators are aware of students who tend to act as bullies, but they don’t plan to keep a list, Ms. Karb said. Wire Village School in Spencer developed a list after asking students to name bullies in a school survey.

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