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Archive for Wednesday, March 31, 2010

Bullying raises questions about schools’ vigilance, liability

March 31, 2010

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— A gay teenager in New York wins $50,000 from a school district that failed to stop taunts about his sexual orientation. The Justice Department investigates complaints that administrators ignored racial bullying in a Philadelphia school.

And in Massachusetts, a 15-year-old girl hangs herself after she is mercilessly harassed for months — taunting and threats that school administrators knew about but did not stop.

Now, with nine students charged in the bullying of Phoebe Prince, who hanged herself at her family’s home in January, questions have arisen about how accountable school officials should be for stopping bullying.

Barbara Coloroso, a nationally known anti-bullying consultant, had been contacted by South Hadley school officials months before Phoebe’s death, after a young boy in nearby Springfield killed himself. She spent a day there in September, training teachers and administrators on how to recognize and deal with bullying.

Coloroso said school officials made mistakes by failing to stop the bullying and, after Phoebe hanged herself, by allowing at least some of the students involved to continue to attend classes and a school dance with no visible signs of discipline.

“The questions to ask are: Did they follow their own rules and did they keep Phoebe safe? Obviously not. And, did they deal effectively with the bullies? Obviously not,” Coloroso told The Associated Press on Tuesday.

Authorities say Phoebe, who had recently emigrated from Ireland, endured months of verbal assaults and threats after she briefly dated a popular boy. She was harassed mostly in school, but also on Facebook and through other electronic forms.

District Attorney Elizabeth Scheibel said the inaction of school officials was troublesome but not criminal.

More than 40 states have anti-bullying laws that generally require schools to adopt a set of preventive policies. But Marlene Snyder of Clemson University’s Institute on Family and Neighborhood Life said laws and policies don’t necessarily help if schools don’t follow through with intensive training for teachers and staff.

“In defense of teachers, very few of them have ever had training on bullying prevention, much less how to intervene without making the situation worse,” she said. “Some people don’t understand the dramatic and devastating effect that this kind of treatment can have on a child.”

In Phoebe’s case, school officials had previously said they did not know about Phoebe’s harassment before she committed suicide. They have said some students accused of taking part in the bullying have been disciplined and will not return to class.

Administrators and School Committee members did not return calls and e-mails seeking comment. In a statement, Assistant Superintendent Christine Swelko said “a small group of students” was removed from school Tuesday. She would not say how many or whether they had been expelled.

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