Editors' note: Carly Burton is the Director of Public Policy and Political Affairs for MassEquality.
Massachusetts' new anti-bullying law is a tremendous step forward in keeping students safer in our schools. But there are several ways to improve the law so that students who need help get it in the quickest, most efficient way possible.
Identify those who are most at risk
The law currently states that schools "may establish separate discrimination or harassment policies that include categories of students." This isn't sufficient to address the specific challenges of LGBT youth, youth with LGBT parents, and other students who are proven to be more at risk for harassment and bullying.
The law should be amended to include a non-inclusive list of categories of students who are at a disproportionate risk of being bullied. The inclusion of this language would reflect a greater focus on bullying prevention by acknowledging the fact that certain students with actual or perceived differences are more at risk.
According to the 2009 national climate survey by the Gay and Lesbian Straight Education Network, more than 84.6 percent of the almost 10,000 students surveyed stated that they had been verbally harassed at school because of their sexual orientation.
Put safeguards in place so students aren't inadvertently outed
The coming out process for LGBT students is very individual and personal. Though students may be out to friends and peers at school, they may not be out to their family.
Parents should be notified when a student has been bullied based on sexual orientation or gender identity or expression, but a student's privacy interests also should be taken into consideration. Revealing a student's status to his/her parent/guardian may put that student at risk within the home environment.
Research has shown that youth who experience rejection by their families when they reveal their sexual orientation are more than eight times as likely to have attempted suicide and nearly six times as vulnerable to severe depression as those whose parents respond positively. The consequences of familial rejection are at cross purposes with the intent of the Commonwealth's anti-bullying protections, and great care is required to determine when parent notification is safe and appropriate.
Fund the program
As it stands, the state's anti-bullying law is an unfunded mandate on the Commonwealth's cities and towns, which are currently struggling with tightened municipal budgets. The statute requires that the anti-bullying plan include an important provision for ongoing professional development to build the skills of all staff members in combating bullying, and it requires a robust list of what should be included in the professional development offerings for each district.
The Department of Elementary and Secondary Education has put forth $1 million to help school districts fund this professional development work until June of 2011. But once this funding is depleted, there are no monies attached to the legislation to help school districts pay for professional development.
A bullying prevention fund needs to be created that would pay for school districts' professional development programs for teachers and staff.
Measure results and make improvements
The statute requires periodic review school districts to determine whether they are in compliance with this act. However, the legislation is not specific as to what this evaluation will entail. The statute should be amended to be more specific about how school districts will be evaluated.
For example, the legislation could require the Department of Elementary and Secondary Education to develop survey instruments for distribution to a variety of stakeholders including students, parents, administrators, staff, and other experts to gauge how effective the plan is in the anti-bullying efforts of that particular school district.
With these changes, the Commonwealth's commitment to ending bullying in our schools would be enormously strengthened.