NH seeks to turn back clock on anti-bullying legislation
Posted: Wednesday, May 4, 2011 8:01 pm
CONCORD, N.H. (AP) — When Leila Pouliot’s 6-year-old son, Benjamin, was bullied on the school bus last fall, school officials told her that because he wasn’t on school grounds, “there wasn’t a whole lot they could do about it.” By January, things had changed. The principal sat down with the child and explained how he would be disciplined if the behavior continued, said Pouliot, who now runs a parents-against-bullying blog. The boy apologized, and both children, still riding the bus, are getting along, Pouliot said — a scenario that wouldn’t have come about if some New Hampshire legislators get their way. Only months after New Hampshire’s anti-bullying law was updated to extend schools’ authority off campus, some legislators want to restrict the boundaries to school grounds — going against the grain not only of their own state, but also others that punish bullies who disrupt other students’ lives off campus or online. The Senate is taking up the issue Wednesday. “I don’t know what the Legislature is doing,” Pouliot, of Gilford, told The Associated Press days after testifying on the issue before a Senate committee. “It’s illogical at best.” New Hampshire amended its 10-year-old anti-bullying law last year for the electronic age, now that tools like Facebook and Twitter also present golden opportunities for belittling and bullying. The change also allowed districts to step in “if the conduct interferes with a pupil’s educational opportunities or substantially disrupts the orderly operations of the school or school-sponsored activity or event.” Some legislators believe the revised law gives schools too much authority over children and want to remove the off-campus provision. They say once a child leaves school grounds, it’s the parent’s responsibility to combat bullying. Brenda High, a Washington state resident who runs Bully Police USA, a website that tracks and grades legislation on bullying, agreed with Pouliot that New Hampshire’s legislation appeared to be heading backward. “That’s crazy,” she said. Not to Ralph Boehm, a New Hampshire House Republican whose bill to remove the off-campus reference and make other changes passed the Republican-controlled chamber in March by a 248-96 vote. “Bullying’s bad; it’s always existed, and nothing we do is going to stop it,” said Boehm, a former Litchfield school board member who said he was bullied as a child in the 1960s. “But the thing is, people do have freedom of speech and the freedom of speech can be mean,” he said, so it’s unconstitutional for school districts to punish children for what they say or do outside of school. Nancy Willard, a Eugene, Ore., resident who runs the Center for Safe and Responsible Internet Use, providing help with youth risk online issues, noted that courts have given schools the reach to combat off-campus bullying. “The consistent ruling of the courts in this area is that school officials clearly have the authority to respond to any situation — regardless of the geographic origin — if that is causing a substantial disruption at school or making it impossible for another student to receive an education,” she said. Twenty-nine states have laws addressing cyberbullying. Last year, Massachusetts Gov. Deval Patrick signed into a law a bill cracking down on bullying, passed after the suicides of two students believed to be victims of intense harassment, 15-year-old Phoebe Prince of South Hadley and 11-year-old Carl Walker-Hoover of Springfield. When cyberbullying issues started emerging several years ago, Willard said, school administrators were afraid of the additional liability. “It appears they are shifting because they know that they have to respond to these off-campus incidents because they sure as heck are going to have an impact at school,” she said.
Published in The Messenger 5.4.11