Former Prosecutor Calls for Tougher Massachusetts Anti-Bullying Law

The prosecutor who brought charges against six students accused of bullying a 15-year-old girl who committed suicide said Wednesday that the state's new anti-bullying law should be toughened.

Former Northwestern District Attorney Elizabeth Scheibel testified before a special commission set up to review the law and decide whether changes or additional laws are needed.

The law was passed in May after several high-profile bullying cases, including the January 2010 death of Phoebe Prince, a freshman at South Hadley High School. It required all school districts in the state to develop bullying prevention laws and sought to crack down on cyberbullying -- harassment that occurs online.

Scheibel, who did not seek re-election and left office in January, brought charges against six students in connection with Phoebe's death. All six have pleaded not guilty.

Phoebe was an Irish immigrant who prosecutors say was targeted after she briefly dated a popular boy.

In her testimony before the panel chaired by Attorney General Martha Coakley, Scheibel called for beefing up the law to ensure that schools promptly report to law enforcement any substantiated complaints of bullying.

"All too often, school administrators delay or neglect to inform law enforcement about acts that occur on school property," Scheibel said.

Scheibel said the law as written requires a school administrator to pass on to the district attorney substantiated reports of bullying -- but only if the administrator believes the action might be serious enough to warrant criminal prosecution.

Scheibel said the law should be changed to require schools to pass on all substantiated reports of bullying to law enforcement, leaving it solely to prosecutors to determine what, if any, further action is necessary.

Scheibel also said the law should be changed to add penalties against school employees or administrators who are aware of bullying complaints but fail to report them.

Following her testimony, Scheibel told reporters the discussion about school bullying that grew out of Phoebe's death and her office's prosecution of the case has been a positive aspect of the tragedy.

"I know, in fact, in talking with Phoebe's family, that if there is some good to come out of it, there is not only a public debate at the local level and national level, but certainly the international (level) as well," Scheibel said.

"We need to begin to change the culture. We need to have people understand, children understand, accountability and responsibility," she said.

While the anti-bullying statute was praised by many speakers at Wednesday's hearing, Scheibel was not the only one who felt it could be made more effective.

Harvey Wolkoff, chairman of the civil rights committee of the Anti-Defamation League of New England, said the law was one of the most comprehensive in the nation, but he was concerned that not every school district was fully complying.

"Unless every Massachusetts school district complies, many children will remain unprotected from bullying and cyberbullying, and we will find ourselves in the same situation that prompted the need for the legislation in the first place," said Wolkoff.

He said the ADL was recommending that state education officials maintain a public list of compliance -- or noncompliance -- by school districts and the state also be required to make annual reports to the Legislature on levels of school bullying.

State Auditor Suzanne Bump noted that the law lacks a provision requiring that all bullying incidents serious enough to be reported to parents also be reported to the state Department of Elementary and Secondary Education.

Coakley said her commission, which was created by the law, would hold a second hearing in western Massachusetts next week and make recommendations by June 30 on any necessary revisions.

Coakley said 14 percent of Massachusetts high school students in a 2009 survey reported being the direct victims of bullying, and 60 percent of students reported at least one incident of being cyberbullied. But she also noted that there was no universal agreement on when bullying rises to the level of a crime.

"We don't have the term bullying in our criminal code," Coakley said.