Time to reform state’s anti-bullying law

Tomorrow, May 3, marks the second anniversary of the signing of the state’s bullying law. This law requires school districts to create bullying prevention plans and provide training on bullying prevention and intervention for all levels of school personnel.

“This bill is making a difference in our schools,” said Kara Suffredini, Esq., executive director of MassEquality. “But it hasn’t been enough. In Massachusetts, lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender kids are four times more likely to skip school because of being fearful for their safety. This is unacceptable, and these kids—our kids—need to feel safer now.”

MassEquality supports passage of House Bill 3584, sponsored by the Commission on Bullying Prevention, which would amend current law so that school district bullying prevention plans would be required to explicitly identify those groups of students who are more vulnerable to bullying, including students who are LGBT or perceived to be, and students whose parents are LGBT. The bill would also require that schools collect data about bullying, which could then be used to assess the efficacy of anti-bullying curricula. It would also continue the existence of the Commission on Bullying Prevention.

“It is well documented that LGBT students, or those who are perceived to be LGBT by their peers, and those who have LGBT parents, are frequently the targets of bullying in schools. This change to the state’s anti-bullying law would set the stage for Massachusetts to catch up with thirteen other states whose anti-bullying laws explicitly protect LGBT youth in schools,” Suffredini said. “These protections are necessary to ensure that harassment of LGBT students, and all students who are perceived as different, is not overlooked or disregarded.”

According to the 2007 Youth Risk Behavior Survey, high school students who identify as LGBT were twice as likely as their straight peers to report being bullied and nearly five times as likely to attempt suicide. Meanwhile, a recent survey by the Gay Lesbian and Straight Education Network, found that 85 percent of LGBT students have been verbally harassed because of their sexual orientation, and 18 percent have been physically assaulted.

The state’s anti-bullying law was passed unanimously by state lawmakers in 2010 after the bullying-related deaths of two Massachusetts students. In 2011, the Commission on Bullying Prevention, chaired by Attorney General Martha Coakley, held hearings around the state to collect testimony about the law’s implementation and impact. MassEquality submitted testimony to the Commission in February, 2011. As a result of those hearings, the Commission recommended that the law be amended to require that explicit protections for students frequently targeted for bullying be written into anti-bullying plans.

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8 Comments . Leave a comment below.
  1. To be honest I don't see what this accomplishes.

    The text of the bill requires a statement that acknowledges that all kinds of attributes or perceived attributes makes people targets of bullying, but where does that get us? Isn’t the larger point that ALL bullying for ANY “reason” is unacceptable and should be seriously dealt with. I have no doubt that certain populations are more targeted than others, but that does not change the impropriety of the behavoir. ALL students should feel safe at school and I find explicit statements unnecessary and potentially counterproductive.

  2. Why?

    I fail to see how the problem you document is solved by the solution you offer, much less how someone’s going to determine whether a student belongs in a certain group. How are you going to label a child as “perceived to by gay”? Is it a slur someone used once, or the administrator’s impression? Do we have a brief discussion, “who here thinks so-and-so is gay?”

    sabutai   @   Wed 2 May 9:57 PM
  3. Research shows that enumerated anti-bullying policies work better than generic ones

    Here’s a link to a good piece from GLSEN that makes the case for enumeration. Clip from the piece:

    Students who attend schools with policies that enumerate categories report less bullying and harassment then students who do not!
    o Research has shown that students in states with generic laws are no more protected from bullying than students who live in states without any anti-bullying and harassment laws (40.8% w/ generic policies vs. 39.8% w/ no policies report ‘often or frequently’ hearing verbal harassment based on sexual orientation).2
    o Students report less overall harassment when they know their school has a comprehensive policy that includes enumeration. Students from schools with an enumerated policy report that others are harassed far less often in their school for reasons like their physical appearance (36% vs. 52%), their sexual orientation (32% vs. 43%) or their gender expression (26% vs. 37%).3
    o Students whose schools have a policy that specifically includes sexual orientation or gender identity/expression are less likely than other students to report a serious harassment problem at their school (33% vs. 44%).4

  4. I was certainly "perceived to be gay" in high school.

    Whether or not I actually was didn’t matter; external factors such as having longer hair (I’m male) and being into theater and books were definitely enough.

    So I’d say that it’s worthwhile to try to include kids who are “perceived to be gay” as well as kids who actually are. There’s always going to be some slippage in categories, but having uncertainty is better than not dealing with the real problems that an ambiguously categorized kid would have.

    It’s amazing how young this stuff starts. My preschoolers are four, and I’ve already had to have talks with them about not taking against their classmates because they look different.

  5. Feeling Swiss

    in the sense of “still neutral.” I guess the research quoted supports this amendment.

    On the whole, though, a lot of this seems like rear-covering paperwork. Schools have to make plans, and write them down, and submit them in triplicate, and zzzzzz. This seems more like something to cover the rears of legislators and administrative officials when an incident happens: well, we submitted our plan.

    My kids are still small, and it may be that they haven’t hit the age where this issue bites. But we have had a few years now of anti-bullying workshops and posters, and the like. The result of this seems to be that my kids (and their friends) now describe EVERYTHING as bullying, including things that I would describe as “ordinary childish playground incivility.” I do not know if the expansion of what “bullying” is supposed to be is particularly helpful.

    On the other hand, my older child’s class has a number of kids who are “different” in ways that would have made their lives hellish in an early 80s 5th grade. A few kids who do not perceive social cues or context at all, and are perpetually awkward. A few obviously gay, and beginning to realize what that means. At least one obviously –transgendered(? I hope that is the correct word.) Immigrant or ethnic with various unusual customs that manifest themselves in school. Two moms/dads. Boys not good at sports. Girls not girly. I have repeatedly found myself cringing for these kids, thinking what 5th grade would be like for them, only to find to my surprise that these differences are cheerfully and offhandedly accepted by the other kids in a way that never, ever would have happened 30 years ago.

    I do not know if this change is a result of the anti-bullying law. I doubt it, since I began to notice the phenomenon well before the onset of anti-bullying art projects. I also understand that a few nice years doesn’t mean the end of the savagery of middle school. But someone has been doing something right somewhere.

    • I'm with Sabutai and

      CMD (who seems to be my peer) on this. The administration at my school moaned when the state enacted the new bullying bureaucracy, not because they didn’t care, they did and we do, but because it added a layer of BS to what we were already doing. CMD, my school began working on bullying back at the turn of the century. I remember some girls saying some kids deserve to be bullied. We haven’t heard that in years.

      I don’t know how many kids we have “out” at the moment, but as a cause of bullying, it’s less and less of a problem every day. We have teachers who, while not openly gay, are obviously so (to the kids). At my kids’ school, a teacher actually went through a sex change, going from Ms. to Mr. I doubt the experience has been perfect, but the people at school I talked say it’s been a pretty smooth transition in terms of the environment. You know what? The kids don’t care.

      These may be the exceptions, not the rule, and there are certainly problems as there are everywhere, but I’m not sure this is any sort of solution to what’s happening.

      It probably wouldn’t be hard to document instances in which kids who were continually called LGBT slurs, regardless of their actual orientation. Back in the 80s, the recipient of these slurs were, more often than not, gay.

      • Is that a high school?

        We have experienced the pleasant surprise I described above– when we were dreading what would happen to a friend’s, or, on occasion, to our, child– several times now. Each time left thinking, “that was supposed to be a big deal?”

        This seems like a pretty significant cultural shift, at least on an anecdotal basis. Nobody is suggesting that tribalism isn’t going to erupt in some other way, or in the old way, but in my view the change that I see is quite startling.

        I am not sure if this should be attributed to government initiatives like the anti-bullying stuff, to changes in the (local) culture, or to the randomness of anecdotes. As a rule, I am not fond of initiatives that require teachers to spend time on not-teaching.

        • Yeah, I teach at a high school.

          A suburb of Springfield. Our principal (now retired) was very pro-active on school climate. I don’t mean to say there aren’t problems. There are, but they tend to be limited to small groups.

          Here’s an example: there was a transgenderish guy at our school–blue hair, piercings, etc. and gay (I think)–one day I overheard him saying some football players yelled some things out the window at him. I asked him if he wanted me to speak to the coach, who is also a guidance counselor. He said, yes. By the time, I spoke to the guidance counselor the kid had already addressed the issue himself. The coach/guidance counselor made sure his players didn’t do anything like that again.

          Again, I’m not saying there are not problems. There are. Just that they aren’t protracted. And I have to say, kids who I suspect might be gay, but are not out, have friends and don’t get bullied. I contrast this with the experience of a kid I went to school with whose parents agreed to emancipate him and he moved out of state because his life was so unpleasant. Or one of my best friends experienced some bullying, though I don’t know if it was because he was gay. He certainly didn’t feel safe coming out. His life would have been happier had he been more free to be himself.

          It will be interesting to see what this generation does with our country. They certainly have fewer prejudices than we grew up with.

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