Eighteen-year-old Belle Hankey’s account of the torment she says she endured at the hand of her peers at Concord-Carlisle High School is troubling, but worse still is her allegation that school administrators did little to curb the abuse. If her account, in a lawsuit against the school, proves to be true, the situation highlights shortcomings in a Massachusetts law that was intended to promote a forceful response to school bullying.
The 2010 law — passed in the wake of the suicides of Phoebe Prince, 14, and Carl Walker-Hoover, 11 — was hailed upon its passage as the nation’s best antibullying measure. It expressly bans bullying in schools and mandates training in prevention for faculty. It also requires school administrators to promptly report any episodes to parents and, when relevant, to the police. But the law doesn’t include any meaningful way of enforcing these provisions. That’s why the Hankey family filed a civil rights case in federal court against the Concord-Carlisle School District, instead of in a state court. “The bullying statute is toothless,” said Timothy M. Burke, the lawyer representing Hankey.
The Legislature should strengthen the law, perhaps by creating a mechanism for families to appeal to the state if school officials aren’t taking sufficient steps. Hankey alleges that administrators at Concord-Carlisle High School did little to prevent abusive graffiti and vandalism of her car. Her lawyer claims that documents potentially identifying the perpetrators were shredded by a former assistant principal.
Every case of bullying is different, and no one would be better served if schools, in a rush to avoid lawsuits, started expelling students for bullying without a proper investigation. What’s needed is for schools to take an empathetic, common-sense approach — one that treats the problem seriously and judiciously. That’s the spirit of the 2010 antibullying law. But the Legislature must adjust the statute so that schools understand their responsibilities and make sure to act accordingly.