Massachusetts Antibullying Plans: Enforceable?

August 24, 2010

In response to the public outcry surrounding two teenage suicides linked to harassment and bullying at school, Massachusetts passed legislation in May which requires public schools to create bullying prevention plans by years end. Today, the state Education Department released a 14-page template to help schools develop their own policies in response to harassment among students.

The legislative action was reactive, as blame and criticism fell directly on the South Hadley High School administration for failing to intervene in the student-led bullying of Phoebe Prince which led to her suicide in January of this year. The state has been praised for its devoted efforts and zero-tolerance stance on bullying, as the Education Department states: “We will not tolerate any unlawful or disruptive behavior, including any form of bullying, cyberbulling, or retaliation.”

The plan goes on to say, “The school or district expects students, parents or guardians, and others who witness or become aware of an instance of bullying or retaliation involving a student to report it to the principal or designee.”

This plan appears to provide the exact framework that the people of Massachusetts called for after the bullying-related deaths of teenagers this year, including that of Phoebe Prince. One would be hard-pressed to find many who disfavor such a plan. However, there are two major problems with enforcement.

First, the plan “expects students … to report [bullying or retaliation] to the principal or designee.” I would hope that in the wake of the bullying-related tragedies, students would become more proactive in reporting such harassment in an effort to protect their peers. However, expecting adolescents to make themselves targets for emotional, social, or even physical harm by their peers in the name of what’s right is overly optimistic; and because the students are usually the first, and many times only eyes to most bullying, most instances will likely remain undisciplined.

Second, in those situations that have become severe enough for law enforcement to get involved, there are no legal consequences for a student who failed to intervene or report harassment by or on another student. In Massachusetts, there is no “duty to act,” meaning if one student witnesses someone bully, threaten, or even assault another student, there is no legal duty to intervene or report the crime. The duty is different for teachers and school officials, who are placed in a “special relationship” with the students as caretakers and MUST report such conduct. However, school officials are usually the last to find out about student-on-student harassment. So, while teaching the students about the recent tragedies and inherent dangers that come with ongoing bullying and harassment is certainly a step in the right direction, enforcing these new guidelines will be very challenging, especially with such heavy reliance on young adolescents who face no legal consequences for minding their own business and just want to fit in.

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