Will The New Anti-Bullying Law Stop Bullying in Worcester Schools?
Monday, April 28, 2014
In addition to strengthening protection for these two groups, the law also sets forth a data collection system, designed to identify problem areas and trends in regards to bullying. Schools will also be required to report this bullying data annually to education officials.
“It is well known that LGBT youth are at greater risk of suicide and mental health issues such as depression and anxiety as a result of bullying,” said Sarah Valois, Program Director for Y.O.U. Inc. “These youth are often targeted as a result of their gender or identity, or as a result of what others perceive their gender or identify to be. We believe that the changes to the legislation to further protect these and other youth is extremely important and a necessary next step.”
This new law is an expansion on the anti-bullying law that was signed in 2010. The 2010 law was designed to crack down on both traditional bullying and cyber bullying, and required schools to create anti-bullying programs.
The LGBT community was acknowledged in this most recent law as a community that is particularly vulnerable to bullying in the public school setting. Not only are they a vulnerable group, but the combination of being bullied and struggling to interpret their gender identity puts them at a much greater risk of skipping school, depression, anxiety, and suicide.
Statistics from the Department of Education state that LGBT students who are bullied are four times more likely to have committed suicide in the past year, over four times more likely to have skipped school in the past month because they feel unsafe, and over three times more likely to be involved in a physical fight. They are also almost two times more likely to have been threatened with a weapon at school.
These statistics are certainly startling, and could have been one of the leading factors in the creation of the new law. Although happy that the issue is finally being addressed, Laura Farnsworth who is the program director for Safe Homes, an LGBT support organization in Worcester, wishes that it was addressed with the original 2010 law.
“This type of bullying is definitely a local, statewide and national issue,” said Farnsworth. “Even though Worcester is an area where there is some awareness and tolerance, it is still an issue. We were very disappointed when this wasn’t a part of the original law, but we are glad that this issue is finally being addressed.”
Farnsworth believes that most of the bullying attempts against students who are known members of the LGBT community are due to a lack of understanding and tolerance for what the bullied student may be going through. More tolerance, awareness, and overall education about the issue at hand could lead to less bullying attempts in the future.
“I think that a lot of times, we are working with an ill-informed society,” said Farnsworth. “A lot of people are either confused or not properly educated about human sexuality. It is also concerning because sometimes when people look at our organization, they feel that we are trying to turn people gay, which is obviously not true.”
“Just imagine being a teenager having to live in fear because you are unsure as to whether or not the same group of kids will continue to target you or not,” said Farnsworth. “Unfortunately, this is not the only issue that an LGBT student may face in terms of bullying. Some students do not have a good support group in the home setting. Also at school, sometimes administration and teachers don’t become as involved as they should.”
Overall, Farnsworth believes that society as a whole is making positive steps forward in helping to foster members of the LGBT community and to help bullying prevention. Bullying is something that needs to be looked at from multiple levels; the school district, community, families, local, state, and national level government all have to play a part in bullying prevention.
“I think that parents and teachers also need to be held accountable,” said Farnsworth. “While some parents and teachers are very accepting, others seem to bat a blind eye. We hear that there is a zero tolerance policy for students; I think the same needs to be true for everyone.”
Empowering the Disabled
While protection for LGBT students was a priority of this new law, students with disabilities were also a focus. Students with disabilities are often targets of bullies because they look, talk, or learn differently from others. And because they are perceived to be disabled in some way, they become easy targets.
Students with disabilities are two to three times more likely to be bullied than another student. Much like the LGBT community, organizations who help these disabled students – like Easter Seals Massachusetts – advocate for more education and awareness so that people can become more tolerant.
“We are an organization that advocates for empowering students with disabilities,” said Colleen Flanagan, the camp and youth services manager at Easter Seals Massachusetts. “We also advocate for more disability history awareness and tolerance. Unfortunately, there is a lot of stigma that goes along with being disabled and not a lot of awareness. We want to empower all people with disabilities so that people understand that this is a normal part of life and not something that people should be bullied for.”
Flanagan believes that students with disabilities should not be looked at as any different than anyone else in the world because everyone is different in their own way. Instead of bullying a student with a disability, more should be done in terms of trying to help them with the various day-to-day problems that they have to face.
Another issue with students with disabilities is that the bullying doesn’t stop after they leave school. Although not bullied directly as adults, people with disabilities are often discriminated against, which could be seen by some as a form of bullying.
“I think that because disabilities are so stigmatized, bullying is definitely something that can leak into other areas of life,” said Flanagan. “Adults with disabilities typically do not work and if they do, they often have a hard time finding a job. While I wouldn’t call it bullying, I think that discrimination is definitely a concern.”
“It is human nature to want to make yourself feel better about yourself and putting down others is sometimes a way to get that gratification,” said Flanagan. “I think that with more education, specific groups will no longer be targeted by bullies. I think people need to learn how diverse a community can be so that tolerance can be built. We all have important things to offer to our communities, disability or not.”
Reporting Bullying Statistics
One of the other points brought up in the new law is having to report bullying statistics yearly, so that if any trends are being developed or if specific groups are being targeted, then administrators can look for better ways to stop bullying attempts.
The concept of these reports has received generally favorable praise among educators and advocacy groups, but a few problems do seem to present themselves. Accuracy of the reporting, and increased workload for educators, and the ability to classify bullying are all concerns of having to create statistical data for bullying.
“This data is something that can be pretty tricky to report accurately,” said Tracy O’Connell Novick of the Worcester School Committee. “The state managed to create another report to add to the hundreds that we already have to conduct each year. The data could be a very useful tool, but it is hard to classify some instances. What exactly constitutes bullying? I think that every school will have a different answer.”
Novick may not seem like the strongest supporter of the new reporting requirements, but not everyone else is on board with the idea either. Because it is hard to classify what exactly constitutes as bullying and not all schools are willing to report each instance because they don’t want bullying to be perceived as a huge problem in their school, true and accurate reporting may be hard to obtain.
“I’m not sure of the accuracy of the reports,” said Kirk Joslin, the president and CEO of Easter Seals Massachusetts. “I don’t think that it is necessarily clear on what instances have to be reported. I think that there needs to be more training and uniformity because I have read that there are discrepancies in previous reports.”
Ultimately, whether or not people believe that the reporting is a good or a bad idea, everyone agrees that doing something to prevent bullying is a step in the right direction.
“I think that the reporting is a fine idea,” said Joslin. “And while a fine idea, I am more focused with trying to attack the problem itself. I think that the best way to help prevent bullying is to create a society in which people are more understanding of everyone’s differences. I think that we need to have more openness about who we are as human beings; this is something that should be happening on all levels of society.”
Related Slideshow: MA School Districts With The Most Suspensions
Here are the 20 Massachusetts public school systems with the highest number of out of school suspensions, from lowest to highest. The data were collected by the Massachusetts Department of Elementary and Secondary School Education, and refer to the 2011-12 school year. Data represent the number of total suspensions, not the number of individual students suspended. Dropout reates indicated the percentage of students, grades 9-12, who dropped out of school between July 1 and June 30 prior to the listed year and did not return before October 1. Both in school and out of school suspension rates indicate the percentage of students receiving one or more of the respective suspensions. All data are self reported by school districts.
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