By Ashley Taylor
Students and staff members at Somerville schools now have three ways to report bullying. As an alternative to simply telling a trusted staff member, students can now anonymously report bullying by completing an online form or by leaving a message at a bullying hotline.
These bullying reporting systems, which went live on Thursday, February 10, were developed in accordance with a 2010 state anti-bullying law. Two months after Somerville submitted its bullying prevention plan, and three school days after anonymous reporting methods were made available, it is too early to tell how the anti-bullying efforts are working, and such analyses are easier demanded than done.
“Thank you for calling the anonymous bullying hotline of the Somerville Public Schools,” begins the 90-second recording you will hear if you call number for the Egnlish bullying reporting hotline. There are also hotlines in Spanish, Portuguese, and Haitian Creole. The recording asks you to leave a message including the “who, what, when, and where” of the bullying incident.
People can also report bullying in person to school staff members or fill out an anonymous bullying report form online at www.somerville.k12.ma.us/bully_report.
Once a report has been submitted, Director of Student Services Richard Melillo will investigate the report’s claims. If the investigation substantiates the claims, the school principal will notify the parents of involved students, take steps to assuage the victim’s worries, and discipline the bullies. If the bullying includes crimes, such as harassment, stalking, threats, sexting (sending nude or partially nude photos through a cell phone) or distributing child pornography, the school will bring in law enforcement.
As of Monday afternoon, February 14, no anonymous reports had been received through either the hotline or the online form, according to Somerville School Superintendent Tony Pierantozzi.
On Wednesday, February 9, about 25 people gathered at Somerville High School to learn about bullying and the new reporting systems at the “Bullying Prevention and Intervention Training.” Pierantozzi and Melillo presented the bullying reporting methods, including the new bullying hotline.
At Wednesday’s meeting, Margie Daniels, Executive Director of Middlesex Partners For Youth, Inc., a non-profit which works with the District Attorney’s office to promote youth health and safety, and Nina Pomponio, Assistant District Attorney for Middlesex County, gave a presentation about bullying with a focus on cyber-bullying—bullying via the internet and cell phones.
The presentation also outlined how Somerville’s anti-bullying plan follows the stipulations of the state anti-bullying law. “An Act Relative To Bullying in Schools” required schools to develop a bullying prevention, reporting, and intervention plan by the end of 2010. The plan had to include statements that would prohibit bullying, channels for reporting bullying, strategies for promoting the safety of the victims and the reporters of bullying, and the range of disciplinary actions that school staff could invoke as punishments.
Somerville submitted its anti-bullying plan to the state on December 9, 2010, according to the school district website.
The state anti-bullying law emphasizes that bullying does not have to be face-to-face or even at school to fall under purview of the school’s anti-bullying system. Schools can address any bullying, be it face-to-face or virtual, at or outside of school as long as the bullying “creates a hostile environment at school for the victim, infringes on the rights of the victim at school or materially and substantially disrupts the education process or the orderly operation of a school.”
The law obligates all school staff to report bullying when they observe it or become aware of it.
The law also requires schools to develop anti-bullying curriculum for all grade levels and train school staff about bullying, particularly cyber-bullying.
Sending text messages over cell phones, “texting,” is the most common form of cyber-bullying, Pomponio said Wednesday night. Social networking sites like facebook are also avenues for cyber-bullying, where networking turns to ganging up. Now that cell-phones can access the internet, they are platforms for both kinds of cyber-bullying.
The anti-bullying law followed the January 2010 suicide of South Hadley freshman Phoebe Prince after she was bullied by her peers. Yet is bullying an increasing problem in Somerville?
In fact, according to the Somerville Cares About Prevention Youth Risk Behavior Survey cited by Pierantozzi, bullying in Somerville has been decreasing. In 2010, the percentage of surveyed students reporting that they had been bullied at school within the past year bullying was at its lowest levels (18 percent) since the first survey in 2002, and lower than the state average (22 percent). The survey did not say if the variations (from an 18 percent low in 2010 to a 24 percent high in 2008) were statistically significant or if they could have arisen by chance from different samples of students with similar average levels of bullying.
When asked if she thought bullying had increased in recent years, Margie Daniels responded: “Anecdotal accounts support that there is more bullying now. Certainly, most of us have been sensitized to the topic of bullying given the media climate. To really get an answer to your challenging question, research would have to be done.”
As for whether cyber communication has promoted bullying, Daniels said that “association is not causation. While many of us strongly suspect that the advance of social networks and cell phones has resulted in increased bullying, I can’t vouch for the authenticity of this belief. My gut reaction is that this is correct because social networking sites and texting with cell phones have made it easier to bully larger numbers of people rapidly and anonymously.”