Bullying Law Comes to Massachusetts

Massachusetts, it is time for the anti-bullying law to be implemented and a writer in the Boston Globe hopes its implementation does not suffer the same fate as an anti-hazing law that was enacted after the 1984 death of a college student who died of acute alcohol poisoning after an enforced hazing:

Only three weeks after the deadline for schools to file anti-bullying plans with the state, a cautionary lesson has come out of the state auditor’s office. We have had an anti-hazing law for 25 years, but an audit found that state monitoring of school compliance with the law had been nearly nonexistent.


Parallel to how the anti-bullying law emerged from the suicides of Phoebe Prince and Carl Joseph Walker-Hoover, the anti-hazing law was inspired by the 1984 death of a college student who died of acute alcohol poisoning after a forced gorging. When Governor Michael Dukakis signed the law establishing criminal penalties, he said, “This is the kind of conduct we’re not going to tolerate in this state.’’

A quarter century later, no one knows just what is tolerated. Despite heightened national awareness of bullying, three quarters of incidents likely still go unreported, according to researchers at the University of New Hampshire. A 2008 University of Maine study determined that 55 percent of college students involved with teams, clubs, bands, and other campus organizations experience hazing. Nearly half of the respondents came to college having experienced hazing in high school. Despite the refreshing suspensions for high school hazing last fall in Needham and Agawam, flushing out bullying and hazing remains exceedingly difficult amidst a youth’s desire to belong, the denial of many parents that their kids haze, and skittish administrators who want to confront neither parents nor bad publicity.

The law in Massachusetts has been receiving national publicity while evoking strong feelings in different directions. Many applaud the Massachusetts law and others like it for making it clear to everyone that bullying will not be tolerated. Others worry that the law may set-up "zero-tolerance" policies that don't cover complex situations but which lead to over-reactions in minor matters. The discussion is an important one, and applies not only to high schools, but carries over to the continued existence of bullying and hazing on college campuses, as noted by my recent blog for The American Mental Health Association.

William Van Ornum


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8 years 1 month ago
Bullying is dangerously subjective term; when does mere disagreement rise to the level of bullying, and at what cost to education and freedom of expression?  Can a child laugh at another child's choice to dye his hair blue?  Criticize the football team represented on the shirt of another child?

Frankly, I believe these anti-bullying laws are just an attempt of homosexual advocates to promote the teaching of homosexual behavior in public schools.  To them, all behavior, especially sexual behavior, must be accepted.  But religious behavior can never be tolerated.

We can't protect every child who is mentally ill-equipped to handle adversity; there will always be someone who looks at you the wrong way, says the wrong thing, are thinks the wrong thing.  When is the suicide itself irrational?

My parents helped me deal with the various instances of "bullying" that I suffered over the years:  "Sticks and stones many break my bones...."  Physical bullying is already prohibited in all school policies, and physical violence against anyone is covered by existing state statutes.
Marie Rehbein
8 years 1 month ago
Michael, bullying is not expressing a reaction to something like a team depicted on a shirt or someone's hair color.  It's not even social exclusion.  Bullying is characterized by the fact that it is aggressive, repetetive and unsolicited.  If someone is effeminate in his manner and is kidded about it, that is not bullying.  However, if people confront the individual, taunt him, physically assault him, then that is indisputably bullying.  This is not about homosexuality. Some people simply choose to be bullies as if this were a sport.
Crystal Watson
8 years 1 month ago
"worry that the law may set-up "zero-tolerance" policies that don't cover complex situations"

What "complex situations" could those possibly be?

I think the law sounds like a good idea.  The arguments against it remind me of the arguments against  The Matthew Shepard Hate Crimes Bill.   The merit of the  idea that we need to preserve the right to torment others just escapes me.
Jim McCrea
8 years 1 month ago
Some kids who are not gay or lesbian are nonetheless thought to be so and bullied as if they were.
Is that OK or is it just "kid stuff?"

The fact that there can be disagreement about attempts to quash bullying on school campuses sickens me.
Katrina Ferrer
8 years 1 month ago
It is very evident that hazing is still going on today and despite all efforts to prohibit these acts, one may wonder why it still goes on, almost, tolerated. Society is concerned that the anti-hazing law will turn into this zero-tolerance policy in which every minute act will be over generalized and labeled as hazing. The state does not want to get involved in shutting down these large organizations because, generally, it would be considered as bad press. For example, on a large college campus where Greek Life is predominant; shutting down organizations that greatly contribute to the welfare of the college, serving the community, as well as giving the college additional press may cause officials to turn a blind eye to all that is going on behind closed doors because of the benefits that the organization brings to the institution. Alumna of such organizations, that have continued on to careers may in turn support their alma matter for continuing to support their organization. This alumna relationship is vital to the life of the institution as alumna most typically donate much needed funds and support. I know at Marist, Greek Life on campus raises anti-hazing awareness through an annual guest speaker who discusses, to future Greeks, the rights and wrongs of the new member process. This awareness is vital to all those unaware of when traditions and  rituals go too far.
8 years 1 month ago
Here is how anti-bullying legislation played out in Almeda California:


No special mention of racial bullying or religious bullying, but homosexual bullying gets special mention.  No opt-out for parents permitted. 

Bridget O'Brien
8 years 1 month ago
You're right, Michael - that looks like a bad anti-bullying plan. I fully agree we should not have bad anti-bullying plans that ignore particular groups of people or confuse conflicting religious views with bullying. But constant harassment and threats of violence don't fall within the realm of divergent views a pluralistic society must tolerate. The jump from "Some places enact bad anti-bullying plans" to "No anti-bullying plans should ever be enacted," however, is founded on the same false identification of conflicting views and cruelty.  Neither religious social conservatives nor LGBT young people are well-served by a refusal to distinguish between the two.
8 years 1 month ago
Bridget - Yes, of course there are good ways and bad ways of executing legislation, no doubt.

Perhaps I take too ideological an approach to such matters, but whenever I see legislation being passed on matters where there has previously seemed to be no need of legislation, I look for the motives.  So what's changed that we suddenly need anti-bullying legislation?  Is there more bullying?  Have children become more sensitive?  Are parents not preparing their children for adversity as well as they have in years past?  Are homosexual advocates, emboldened by approval of same-sex marriage, attempting to indoctrinate young children into accepting thier lifestyle and snuffing out religious opposition?

And given that something has changed, is legislation the way to address it, or is there some other less intrusive means for accomplishing the claimed issue?

Secularlists have already removed Christmas from the schools, notwithstanding any real opposition to it and any harm caused by it.  Perhaps if Christmas and its message of peace on earth, good will to men were still allowed in schools, bullying would be less of an issue.
Bridget O'Brien
8 years 1 month ago
Bullying happened in previous years - and suicides influenced by bullying happened in previous years. Any new focus on bullying needs to face the moral failure that is ignoring issues in the past. Period.

But we also need to acknowledge that identity politics isn't the only new reality: the internet has made instantaneous, widespread, and irrevocable communication possible in a new way, and cell phones enable constant and direct communication.  Many extreme cases of bullying have heavily involved such new technologies - ensuring that such taunting follows a victim wherever he or she goes. Moreover, even children and teenagers who don't use the internet, or whose internet use is monitored by their parents, are still affected by this: there have been several cases of bullies creating fake accounts using the name of a classmate. These are all fairly significant new developments that have nothing to do with the bogeyman of "homosexual activists."
Marie Rehbein
8 years 1 month ago
David, I think you are making up things about what the Massachusetts law contains.  My understanding is that it requires schools to establish procedures for dealing with bullying incidents and to have presentations that make students, faculty, and administrators more aware of bullying and how to deal with it.  There is a part that defines stalking and sets a punishment and another part that defines criminal harrassment and sets a punishment.  No where does it say that people will have their emails monitored.  Presumably, someone who experiences cyber-bullying would be inclined to make these communications available to authorities.
Marie Rehbein
8 years 1 month ago
David, It has always been the case that state legislatures set public school policies.  It doesn't look like Massachusetts is doing anything more than directing the school systems to do much more than set up "bullying awareness" programs.  I think it may be the case that young people have taken bullying to new lengths since it can be done somewhat impersonally via computers these days.
Marie Rehbein
8 years 1 month ago
I went to high school and college in Massachusetts, as did my three brothers, two of whom were in the middle of their college years when the anti-hazing law was passed.  I never experienced any hazing, nor was I aware of it being done to anyone I knew. That does not mean that it did not take place.  However, those I knew who drank, or who took drugs for that matter, did so of their own free will.  What I think this does mean, though, is that it is possible that the state did not monitor school compliance with the law because hazing is not a widespread problem. 

Furthermore, I think that the absence of state monitoring does not mean colleges failed to address the issues of hazing and underage drinking in student orientations or that colleges did not punish students caught engaging in these activities.  I would assume that colleges will address the issue of bullying, as they do hazing and underage drinking, more because of parental (bill payer) concern than because of legislation.

High school, middle school, and elementary school are different matter.  In my opinion, when education is compulsory, the student has a right to expect protection from bullying.  Therefore, I think this law is necessary and that the state will be vigilant that it is followed lest it become subject to lawsuits.  More than likely, though, unenlightened enforcement will at times occur because some teachers and some administrators are primarily bureaucrats.
Michelle Russell
8 years 1 month ago
Bullying comes in so many forms, I'm not sure that a law will be able to reach into all those areas without becoming overly oppressive, or as Marie noted: "More than likely, though, unenlightened enforcement will at times occur because some teachers and some administrators are primarily bureaucrats."  If this law serves to bring more awareness to the problem, though, it will have served a purpose.  I say this as someone who was harassed/bullied (pick your term) in high school, reported it, and was advised to "just ignore him."  Beyond the immediate fear I experienced, I learned it was useless to report abuse and that I just had to learn on my own how to deal with it.  Bullies seem to know instinctively who will be a good victim.  One concern I have is that these types of laws deal primarily with the after-effects. How do we create environments which inhibit bullying behavior?  How do we instill self-respect, self-esteem, and other traits which naturally decrease the bullying behavior?  How do we teach that these behaviors are improper, harmful, denigrating to both victim and bully?  Can a law accomplish this?  Is it meant to accomplish this?  What is the stated purpose of the law?  Maybe this is a good topic for your "psychology and social justice" blog post.  Although I do think this law, and others like it, is perhaps a good first step, it does leave me with many more questions than answers.
Samantha Rooney
8 years 1 month ago
I am not really sure how well this bullying law will work out.  I think it is great that people are starting to recognize just how big of an issue bullying is in school, no matter what age, but I feel that the chance of people reporting that they are being ''bullied'' will be slim to none.  Since it is such a common thing in our society today, and since can take on so many forms (cyber bullying, etc.),  I do not think people will be willing to go as far as to report that they have been made fun of.  They may feel embarrassed or ashamed to tell others, and possibly be afraid of even more people finding out that they were a victim of bullying.  Also, if these ''bullies'' are confronted, it may only make them pick on the victim more than they previously were.  I really do hope this new law is effective, but I am not so sure how effectful it will actually be.
we vnornm
8 years 1 month ago
Hi to All,

I am now off sabbatical and am teaching four full-time classes. I want to do right by my students, so my participation in the blog discussion may evolve or take a different form. So here's a few thoughts in response nto everyone:

I think Katrina brings up an interesting point concerning hazing on large university campuses.
Are we glosing over, minimizing, or denying what is going on? I think this deserves to remain as an open question, perhaps in another blog.

I have a question that perhaps Jim or others could address: is there gay-on-gay bullying? We have, do, and will devote attention in this magazine to straight-on-gay bullying-but what about gays who are bullied by other gays? is this an overlooked topic? In particular, are gays ever forced into unsafe sex by other gays?

Finally, for want of a better word, there seems to me to be an entire spectrum of what, for a better word, I will call "asexual bullying." This can occur at all ages, and be directed toward people of any sexual orientation or practice. It happens across the lifepsan, not just in schools. More to be written on this one, both here and at American Mental Health Foundation,  where we are devoting an entire section of the blog to bullying, and have done so for the past ten months: http://www.americanmentalhealthfoundation.org/blog.php?c=15

I agree with Michelle that there is much to do to bring in a world without bullying.

Best to all and thanks to all respondents, amdg, bill
8 years 1 month ago
Here I am, a day late and a dollar short, as usual.  I'd still like to add a few thoughts to the discussion.  I'm very glad that you, Bill, and the American Mental Health Foundation are examining bullying in depth.  I can give myself as an example of a person who has been bullied  "across the life span.  As a high schooler, I and other girls who were good students (and even young women teachers right out of college) were bullied by a group of boys.  As an adult, I was recently bullied  here at America Online after making a comment on one of the magazine's columns. 

My children who were in special ed and some mainstream classes were both bullied in middle school and high school.  It was so bad for my son that he refused to use the rest rooms at school.  At that time, school personnel seemed helpless or powerless to do anything about it.  As a parent it was up to me to teach them that the bullying was WRONG and did not reflect on their worth but was a failing in the bully.  So when I read about the Mass. law I'll be interested to follow how effective the law is in preventing bullying or will it be another exercise in schools writing procedures they won't follow.   More paperwork and beauracracy.  One hopeful comment was by a deputy auditor who said that ideally if the state was getting the required reports they could review a handful and "begin a process of seeing what works and what doesn't work".    At least the state would have something to go on and other states could learn from Mass.

Another area for analysis is the bullying that occurs within ethnic/racial groups.  I'm thinking particularly of African-American and Hispanic youth who are bright and ambitious and are bullied by their peers because they are serious about their studies.

Bill, I bet your students will give you lots of pertinent information as they probably have seen or experienced bullying themselves.  It is great to read their comments on the blogs.  Best wishes in the classroom!
Marie Rehbein
8 years 1 month ago
David, you seem to be convinced that legislatures simply can do no right.  It seems to me that the bullying issue is finally being addressed and should have been addressed a long time ago.  Obviously, schools did not do it, so now the legislature steps in. 
The legislature in my state of New Mexico determined that all students must take and pass a New Mexico history course.  All legislatures set up and fund departments of education.? ? ??Public schools get a lot of their funding from the state government, or through the state government, in the case of federal funding.  They set the graduation requirements.
Janice Feng
8 years 1 month ago
I personally don't think people should be worrying about "zero-tolerance" policies, they should be focused on keeping bullying and hazing at hand. Although Massachusetts may be introducing a new "no-bullying" law, past history showing the success of the "no-hazing" law makes me wonder if anything will change. People continue to bully and haze others because it has been done to them in the past. It is something that is not going to simply disappear because a law has been introduced. Perhaps I am pessimistic or maybe just realistic in this case because I believe that we may see a slight decrease in bullying for a little while, but nothing is really going to change. Until we can change the mindset of people, the idea that this sort of power over others is not a positive one to have, bullying and hazing are still going to greatly exist. The mindset that bullying and hazing are only among teens and young adults in high school and on college campuses is also a mindset that needs to change. The majority of people learn this type of behavior from those older, so the start of change has to be with the adults. Some may bully because they lack control in their relationships with their parents, and some may witness bullying done by their parents/adults in their life. If the change starts from the top, you will certainly see a decrease in these activities with the teens. Attempting to change this type of behavior from the middle by introducing a no bullying law isn't going to change much.
Marie Rehbein
8 years 1 month ago
David, maybe I should have been a lawyer,  because I don't find the law hard to understand.  How do I know its a good law?  Laws can only be judged by how they are implemented I think.  However, given that some people are saying it doesn't go far enough while others are saying it goes to far, it probably is a good law :)
Liam Richardson
8 years 1 month ago
8 years 1 month ago
Bullying is a huge issue today, beginning in elementary school and extending through college years. Bullying is the cause of so many terrible school experiences.  I believe that laws implemented to stop bullying are very important. However, the law means nothing if it is not followed.  If schools are going to respond to bullying laws as they did the anti-hazing law, then the problem will never be put to an end.
Kerri Smith
8 years 1 month ago
Bullying is a serious, major issue throughout all of the United States, and I believe that any steps we can take to begin to eradicate this problem are necessary. It is impossible for any law to cover all complex, specific aspects of certain circumstances, but that does not mean the law in itself is not going to be useful. It is important for schools to run anti-bullying campaigns, as well as to strictly enforce a zero-tolerance policy. Students need to be shown that they will not get away with bullying, and that it is not okay under any circumstances. Like anything else, we are never going to be able to fully eliminate bullying from our nation, but every little bit helps, and I believe this law is a very important one.
Stephanie Waring
8 years 1 month ago
Bullying is a very important issue in today's society, and even throughout high school and college. It may even be a huge deal in elementary school amongst the students who have nothing better to do, or the students who feel they need to express their anger and take it out on others. Many times students are embarrassed to tell authority figures about the bullying, because they fear that they will be attacked once word "gets out" that he or she is a "tattle tale". The laws that would be in favor of stopping bullying that is serious and dangerous in our school systems are great laws because they will protect the well being of others, especially the students who don't speak up about what being a victim is like.  Laws need to be followed and laid down strict within the school systems.  The anti-hazing law that wasn't closely monitored by school systems didn't help very much because it wasn't enforced to the extent that it should have been. If the laws are strict enough, but not too strict, to protect students who are teased, harassed, hazed, etc., then there shouldn't be any suicides, injuries, etc.  Every parent wishes for their child's safety in school, so I cannot be sure which parent wouldn't agree to an anti-bullying law.  In the end it all comes down to keeping each student in the school and community safe by enforcing punishment on "bullies" that lurk through school settings.
Danielle Lettieri
8 years 1 month ago
Bullying is a serious issue these days. Bullying gets out of hand, and people end up committing suicide. If these people were not bullied, they might not be committing suicide. There seems to be a lot of campaigns out there now against bullying, but I am not sure if they are really helping or not. I think the law against bullying is a pretty good idea because I think it could help more than just having campaigns against bullying. I am not sure if it will help with the bullying problem, though. It depends on how well the law is enforced. Even if the law is enforced, it would probably not get rid of all bullying. Some bullying might not be reported or caught, so the law will not be able to help. However, I think the law is worth a try.
Casey McGowan
8 years 1 month ago
While it is nice to see lawmakers taking a stand on the issue of bullying, I don't know that the aims of the law are very realistic. Bullying occurs in so many ways outside of school, whether between kids online or among adults, that this law has no effect on. Even when bullying does occur in school it is all too often unreported by the victims. As others have mentioned, children don't want to be labeled as a tattle-tale or make their situation worse, so they suffer in silence. For this law to truly be effective in schools, teachers and other staff need to be aware of the interactions between students and intervene when necessary.
Although I do believe bullying is a pretty clear cut issue and it is not difficult to tell when someone has crossed the line, I think part of the problem with the anti-hazing law is that it paints with a broad brush. Many schools may have been remiss in cracking down on dangerous hazing, but there are some cases where a group's actions qualify as hazing, without the negative effects. I know some teams and groups on Marist's campus have the new members do activities like scavenger hunts together. When done with the right intentions and when the participants know that they are free to decide whether they want to be involved, I see these types of activities as bonding rather than hazing. They are simply a way for teammates to get closer to each other in a safe activity. Of course there are plenty of instances when hazing is not as innocent and those activities should be penalized, but we have to be careful not to take the definition of hazing too far.
Lauren Esposito
8 years ago
          In my experience, hazing is not as much an issue in college as it is in high school; developing a more hands-on approach to confronting bullying in high schools across the nation, will help to bring the more intense issue of hazing on college campuses into the light.  While high school students are in the developmental state, trying to find their “place” in social interactions and peer expectations, college students should have the upper hand on such influence.  The matter of hazing in college is therefore more significant, but only the cause of high school bullying.  In order to develop a confrontation of hazing, students, parents and coaches in the adolescent stages of high school need to be educated and pass such knowledge on to their students, children and teams in order to repute the current status of college hazing.
Kailee Mcevoy
7 years 11 months ago
I feel that though anti-bullying laws are great in theory, they are not the most effective way to eliminate bullying in schools. As Casey said in #34, much of bullying occurs outside the school. With the increased usage of the internet and phones by younger kids, cyberbullying is unfortunately on the rise. Cyberbullying exists in so many forms and can be so detrimental to a child's reputation and self esteem. Cyberbullying is such a different problem from traditional bullying because you just can't escape it.

As ABC reporters wrote in their article on a cyberbullying related suicide in 2010, "The schoolyard bullies beat you up and then go home," she said. "The cyberbullies beat you up at home, at grandma's house, whereever you're connected to technology (http://abcnews.go.com/GMA/Parenting/girls-teen-suicide-calls-attention-cyberbullying/story?id=9685026)."

While it is great to emphasize to students that bullying is not tolerated at school, there must be a general emphasis on respect and kindness throughout all aspects of their lives. Bullying does not only occur in school, and something needs to be done to eliminate every aspect of bullying, before more young children tragically commit suicide. 


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