Editorial, News, Opinion

EDIT: Stopping bullying where it begins

Policymakers in Massachusetts can spend as much money as they please to expand and refine early education in their state, but if a student isn’t even comfortable in the classroom — what’s the point?

According to MassEquality.org, bullying remains one of the greatest hurdles to success in a child’s academic experience. As children are discovering the power of anonymity in cyberspace, the days of simple pushing and shoving on the playground are supplemented with stabbing comments over social media — particularly against lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender students.

MassEquality states that 65 percent of teens have reported being verbally or physically harassed in the past year because of their unique qualities such as gender, sexual orientation, race, religion or disability. On Thursday, Massachusetts Gov. Deval Patrick signed a bill that is yet another attempt to combating such intolerance in schools across Massachusetts.

This new bill, called An Act Relative to Bullying in Schools, will work to enhance and enforce protections for LGBTQ students in school districts, charter schools and certain private and residential schools in the state.

The new law outlines certain anti-bullying programs that Massachusetts schools must implement, as well as details specific procedures for collecting and reporting information on bullying incidents within the classroom.

“This new law is the next step on our path to protect children from bullying,” said Attorney Gen. Martha Coakley in a Thursday press release. “It will better protect students who we know are most vulnerable to bullying, including our LGBTQ students and those with disabilities. It will also allow us to better track the effectiveness of our bullying programs across the Commonwealth.”

The original version of this law, passed in 2010, increased efforts to educate students about bullying through handbooks and classroom instructions. Additionally, it implemented new rules intended to hamper down on bullying in schools, as well as enhance education among faculty in how to recognize the problem among students before it even begins.

The new legislation passed on Thursday expands on these existing provisions from the 2010 law, as well as adds the important factor of a new data collection requirement.

The compiled data will be sent to the Department of Elementary and Secondary Education for an analysis on the patterns in LGBTQ bullying in certain schools each year. This is an important reform to the original legislation because it will increase efforts in analyzing bullying problems at its core. It will also reveal patterns of what is being said and done, who is prone to being the bully, the bullied and all of the other factors in between.

“DESE will develop a survey to be administered to students every four years to assess overall school climates and the prevalence, nature and severity of bullying to better determine measures needed to prevent it,” according to the Thursday release.

This new legislation is the fundamental change that Massachusetts needed to implement in their schools. Although eradicating bullying in such open environments will take more than just a piece of legislation, this is still in an important step in eventually achieving that goal.

According to MassEquality.org, students at schools with such comprehensive anti-bullying policies are more likely to report incidents of harassment and assault than those at schools without such preventative policies.

Although school administrators have an obligation to protect their students as much as possible, it would be impossible for them to know every time a student is made fun of for their sexual orientation, gender expression, race, religious affiliation or disability when the bullying is done over the internet.

 So, part of the responsibility for stopping bullying lies on the person being bullied. But, it is unlikely that the victim will take advantage of this responsibility unless they have a comfortable outlet where they can voice their qualms and know that they will be heard.

“This legislation is an important step toward ensuring that all young people are able to learn and thrive in our Commonwealth’s schools,” Patrick said in Thursday’s press release. “With this new law, we are continuing our dedication to our teachers, parents and kids to give them the tools and protections they need so that every student has a chance to reach their full potential.”

However, no matter how refined this legislation may be, no piece of law will be effective against bullying unless its provisions extend past the parameters of school property. Cyber bullying has the malicious ability of impeding on a vulnerable student in their home — a place that is normally supposed to be considered their safe haven.

Massachusetts has made great strides in regards to being an open and liberal state, and policy makers need to help ensure the state continues to progress on and upward path through the legislations they decide to pass.

However, Massachusetts cannot just rely on legislation to fix the problem of bullying within its schools, but rather, it needs to enforce the idea that tolerance and compassion needs to be taught in homes at an early age. Anti-bullying legislation will work best with a cultural shift.

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