Victims say anti-bullying law essential

Last modified: 4/20/2011 12:00:00 AM
Bullied children and their parents pleaded yesterday for state senators to preserve newly enacted changes to the state's pupil safety law that extends protection to online and off-campus bullying.

The Senate Education Committee heard testimony for two hours from educators, students, parents and attorneys defending the expansion last year of a decade-old state law on bullying. Since July, the law has required school districts to adopt written bullying policies and address online or off-campus bullying that affects a student's education. Lawmakers also added to the law a list of characteristics, including race and disability, that have historically motivated bullying.

The committee is considering a bill, passed last month by the House, that would remove both provisions but require school principals to tell parents if they become aware of off-campus or online bullying. The House also proposed removing a part of the original law that allows school district superintendents to postpone telling parents about incidents in order to protect the child's interests. The law otherwise requires officials to tell parents within 48 hours.

Two of the bill's sponsors, both House Republicans, were the only speakers yesterday to support changing the law. Another sponsor, also a Republican from the House, told the senators he ultimately voted against the bill because he felt it was too soon to change the law.

Parents, children and other supporters of the law delivered sometimes tearful accounts of incidents that left students with black eyes and death threats. Jaden Pappargeris, a 10-year-old student at Newmarket Elementary School, told the senators that two years of bullying - from pushing and kicking to mean nicknames and online taunting - made him think about suicide.

'It has made me feel absolutely horrible about myself,' Pappargeris said. 'At times I just wanted to die.'

Katherine Dietz, a mother from Pittsfield, described how classmates of her 11-year-old daughter created a Facebook page saying they wanted to do violent and obscene things to the girl. Dietz said the harassment hurt her daughter deeply and affected her daily life in the sixth grade at Pittsfield Elementary School. But she said the newly updated bullying law allowed her to work with school officials to protect her daughter and move forward.

'It's been a rough couple of months for my daughter and I,' Dietz said. 'But this legislation, the way it's written right now, has given me the tools and the school the tools to remedy the situation.'

In defending the proposed changes to the bullying law, Rep. Ralph Boehm, the vice chairman of the House Education Committee, said laws cannot stop bullying. Boehm, a Litchfield Republican, quoted a song by the pop singer Taylor Swift about teenagers being mean. But he said bullying won't stop when kids grow up, especially if they enter politics.

'Students need to be prepared for life,' Boehm said. 'Unfortunately, bullying is part of it.'

Rep. Laura Gandia, also a Litchfield Republican, cast the bill as a fortification of parental rights. She said the expansion of the bullying law beyond the schoolyard and the option for officials to withhold information impedes the right of parents to care for their children. She asked why school officials would need more time before telling parents about a bullying incident.

'Time for what?' she said. 'Time to figure out if it should let parents be parents? . . . To figure out how government now can interfere with the constitutional right of parents to parent?'

Supporters of the law said the provision allowing school officials to wait more than 48 hours to tell parents about bullying was meant to give administrators latitude when they believe parents might respond by harming their child. They gave the example of children who have told friends, but not parents, that they are gay or lesbian.

While the House bill removes off-campus and online bullying from the full effect of the law, it would require school officials to tell parents when they learn of such an incident. Rep. Donna Schlachman, who was the prime sponsor of the bill last year to revise the bullying law, said that change would make the requirement unclear. Schlachman, an Exeter Democrat, urged the senators to give school districts more time to work with the law. Districts were only required to have their staff trained in the new law by last month.

'We're an impatient society,' Schlachman said. 'We love to go and fix things right away. Sometimes we try to fix things that aren't broken.'

Speakers also attested to the prevalence of online and telephone communication among students and the need for schools to regulate harassment through those avenues. Greg Goldberg, a Henniker resident, said schools need the tools to deal with students who use computerized tools, whether Facebook or email, to taunt their classmates.

'This is a brave new world we live in now,' he said. 'The digital community is almost as important as the flesh and blood.'

In a letter to the committee, Gov. John Lynch said the changes last year to the bullying law addressed the new challenges children face in bullying through cell phones, social networking sites and email. Lynch wrote that he is concerned about the current bill 'because it weakens the progress we've made on this important issue.'

The bullying law received the vote of all 24 members of the Senate last year, before the substantial turnover of the 2010 elections. Chairwoman Nancy Stiles of the Education Committee said last month that she considers it too soon to change the new law. Stiles was a co-sponsor of the bullying law last year as a member of the House.

Sen. Molly Kelly, the only Democrat on the five-member committee, was also among the sponsors. Kelly said yesterday she would not support the proposal to change the bullying law.

'It's obviously worked,' Kelly said. 'I think a lot of the testimony said it's working, it's having a positive impact.'

Another member, Sen. Sharon Carson, said she needed to read testimony that was submitted to the committee before making up her mind. But Carson, a Londonderry Republican, said senators had heard 'some pretty compelling stories' from speakers at the hearing.

'The law is new,' Carson said. 'I think it should have a chance to be in effect for a while.'

The committee adjourned without voting on the proposal.

(Karen Langley can be reached at 369-3316 or klangley@cmonitor.com.)




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