The Massachusetts Senate on Thursday passed S.B. 2313, An Act Relative to School Bullying, which brings much-needed attention to the crisis of bullying and harassment in commonwealth schools. However, the bill falls short as it fails to enumerate the classes of persons who have historically and disproportionately been the subjects of bullying and harassment. Research shows that students at schools with an enumerated anti-bullying policy reported harassment at a significantly reduced rate.
“This policy leaves behind Massachusetts’ most at-risk youth,” said Stanley Griffith, board president of Greater Boston PFLAG, and Danielle Murray, co-chair of GLSEN Massachusetts, in a joint statement. “It is critical to specifically name the problem in this kind of legislation—girls would not have sports and our schools would not be integrated if policymakers had not specifically addressed these inequities by enumerating categories like sex and race in our laws.”
The most common form of bullying and harassment in Massachusetts schools is based on actual or perceived sexual orientation, according to the Massachusetts Youth Risk Behavior Survey. The hostile school climate in schools contributes to elevated risks including an increased number of violent attacks against LGBT students and higher rates of suicide attempts and the use of drugs and alcohol among LGBT students.
Eleven-year-old Carl Joseph Walker-Hoover hanged himself last April after enduring anti-gay bullying at his Springfield school. His mother, Sirdeaner Walker, testified in support of enumerated legislation before the Massachusetts Legislature’s subcommittees on education in their November hearing on this topic.
In a statement at last week’s press conference for S.B. 2313, Walker said, “My son was bullied with anti-gay remarks. Those kids at his school called him those names because they were probably the most hurtful things they could think of to say. And they hit their mark. Sexist and homophobic bullying and harassment are all too common. And evidence shows that school officials often do not recognize this kind of bullying and harassment as unacceptable. “
Less than one-fifth of students reported that school personnel frequently intervened when hearing homophobic remarks or negative remarks about gender expression, according to GLSEN’s 2007 National School Climate Survey (NSCS). More disturbing, nearly two-thirds of students heard homophobic remarks from school personnel.
Enumeration makes it clear that this kind of harassment is unacceptable and gives educators the tools they need to implement safe schools policies that protect each and every student. Students reported in the NSCS that teachers were significantly more likely to intervene when homophobic bullying occurs in states with enumerated policies, as compared to states with either generic policies or no policies at all (25.3% vs. 15.9% and 12.3%).
Further, comprehensive policies with enumeration help ensure that the most at-risk students are afforded the right to an education. Students from schools with a comprehensive policy are 50% more likely to feel very safe at school (54% vs. 36%). Students without such a policy are three times more likely to skip a class because they feel uncomfortable or unsafe (16% vs. 5%).
“Massachusetts has long been a national leader in advocating for and protecting all or our youth,” said Eliza Byard, executive director of GLSEN National, Jennifer Chrysler, executive director of Family Equality Council, and Jody Huckaby, executive director of PFLAG National in a joint statement. “However, this legislation leaves Massachusetts behind 12 other states and the District of Columbia, which have already passed effective, enumerated safe schools legislation.”