Senate Passes Safe School Package

BOSTON – The Senate on Thursday advanced measures to ban bullying and update nutritional standards in schools with a pair of bills aimed at promoting a safe, healthy and productive learning environment for all students. The anti-bullying legislation was based on a bill originally filed last year by State Senator Jamie Eldridge (D-Acton), who voted in favor of both the bullying bill and the school nutrition bill today.

Senate anti-bullying legislation prohibits physical, verbal and written acts that threaten or cause harm to another student, including Internet “cyber-bullying,” while a separate school nutrition bill establishes new standards for fresh food options in school cafeterias and vending machines.

“These two bills working together will make a dramatic difference in our school environment,” Senate President Therese Murray (D-Plymouth) said. “We all know there’s a strong connection between health and safety and learning. By striking out fear and improving nutrition, we’re going to provide students with a more valuable and rewarding educational experience.”

“This is comprehensive, prevention-oriented legislation that will work to end the persistent cycle of bullying we’ve seen in the Commonwealth’s schools for years, leading to tragedies like those in South Hadley, Springfield and too many other communities. Every student deserves to feel safe in their own schools, and this bill is a strong step in that direction,” said Eldridge.

“The anti-bullying legislation passed today provides a framework for schools to adequately address the damaging impacts of bullying in all its forms,” said Senator Robert O’Leary (D-Barnstable), Senate chairman of the Joint Committee on Education. “Equipping teachers, students and parents with more information and education on bullying and outlined steps on how to handle it provides a community solution to a community problem.”

The anti-bullying bill requires all school districts, charter schools and non-public schools to develop prevention and intervention plans by December 31, 2010 that include procedures for investigating bullying incidents, notifying parents and determining appropriate disciplinary actions.

The bill requires school principals to notify local law enforcement of bullying incidents if there is reason to believe criminal charges may be pursued. It also allows Individualized Education Programs for children with special needs to include provisions that will help them handle and respond to incidents of bullying. The bullying ban extends to all school facilities, school-sponsored functions, school buses and bus stops.

The Senate also passed a bill establishing new nutritional standards in schools to address the problem of childhood obesity in the Commonwealth. Food and beverages in school cafeterias, vending machines and other locations in public schools separate from federal meal programs must be in compliance.

“The fact that the current generation of children may have a shorter life expectancy than their parents is simply unacceptable,” said Senator Susan Fargo (D-Lincoln), lead sponsor of the bill. “Families demand and deserve that their children be offered food that is healthy, wholesome and safe. The School Nutrition Bill makes certain that parents have the final word on what children eat at school and makes it a requirement that schools maintain healthy standards in the cafeterias.”

The standards, to be implemented by the 2012-13 school year, will be developed by the Department of Public Health and the Department of Elementary and Secondary Education and include requirements for the availability of free drinking water, fresh fruits and vegetables, and nutritional information for non-packaged foods. The use of deep fryers is banned.

The regulations do not apply to bake sales, concession stands and other school-sponsored events.

The nutrition bill also requires issues of nutrition and exercise to be included in the educational curriculum, and it establishes a commission to make recommendations related the management of childhood obesity, type 2 diabetes and eating disorders.

“I applaud the Senate for taking an important step in combating what has become a childhood obesity epidemic in the Commonwealth, and across our nation,” said Sen. Richard T. Moore (D-Uxbridge), Senate chairman of the Joint Committee on Health Care Financing. “By limiting the availability of unhealthy foods and promoting the infusion of locally grown fresh fruits and vegetables, we’re not only curbing bad habits among our children, but improving the general, healthy outlook of wellness in Massachusetts.”

As a way to further promote wholesome food options and locally grown products, the bill encourages statewide adoption of the successful “Farm-to-School” program, which creates contracts between local farms and public schools to provide fresh fruits, vegetables and ingredients.

The bill also adds state colleges and universities to the requirement that state agencies or authorities give preferential treatment to local farms when purchasing agricultural products.

Finally, capitalizing on the fresh food trend, the bill requires the study of Boston’s “Chefs in Schools” program, which teaches schools to create healthy, cost-effective meals that kids like to eat, to see how it could be effectively implemented in other school districts.

The bill now goes back to the House of Representatives for further action.

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