State Senate moves to bolster anti-bullying law

Hartford - Endorsing the notion that a vicious text can sometimes be as hurtful as a playground punch, state senators passed a bill Thursday that updates and expands protections against bullying to include out-of-school harassment by cell phone, email or social networking.

The 36-0 vote sends the bill to the House. Senators said the bill adds new layers to Connecticut's existing anti-bullying laws that apply to public schools and acknowledges how a great deal of taunting now occurs via texting and through Internet sites such as Facebook.

While "cyberbullying" lacks the jolt of physical assault like a shove into a locker, victims experience real emotional pain, lawmakers said. In some cases, online bullying can lead to youth suicide.

"This bill makes great strides in addressing the issue of bullying, especially cyberbullying," said Sen. Andrea Stillman, D-Waterford, who introduced the bill Thursday after having shepherded it through the legislature's Education Committee.

The bill expands the definition of bullying to include threats or acts that inflict harm on a fellow student, cause the student to fear for his or her safety or create a hostile or disruptive school environment.

Bullying now includes, but isn't limited to, acts or gestures based on "actual or perceived differentiating characteristics" such as race, appearance, religion, disability, sexual orientation or "gender identity."

Republican John McKinney of Fairfield, the Senate minority leader, said cyberbullying can spread taunts and humiliations throughout a school community in a matter of seconds. "It's incredible how fast kids can do mean things to other kids," he said.

Senators agreed to a bill amendment aimed at preventing suicide as a result of bullying.

The father of a Montville High School student who committed suicide this year recently filed a notice of intent to sue the town and school district for what he claims was negligence in a bullying incident. Sophomore Joseph Mendes, 15, shot himself on Jan. 28, eight days after an altercation between him and other students for which Mendes was suspended. Posts on Facebook attributed the suicide to bullying, although the school district maintains that other factors were to blame.

McKinney said the bill that passed the Senate "will go a long way and hopefully, hopefully, might save someone's life."

The bill requires schools and school districts to adopt "safe school climate plans" to combat bullying. The plan must set deadlines for investigating bullying incidents and notifying parents or even police if the actions appear to constitute a crime.

Schools must provide annual training to certified and noncertified staff on how to spot, intervene, and prevent bullying. Each school must also establish a committee to promote a safe school climate.

The bill protects school employees and school boards from legal liability for bullying incidents as long as they act in good faith to report and prevent the incident. It would designate the first Wednesday in October as annual Safe School Climate Awareness Day.

Connecticut passed its first anti-bullying law in 2002. The law was updated in 2006 and 2008 but doesn't address cyberbullying. Massachusetts and New Jersey have passed specific cyberbullying laws.

A 2009 state report found that one in four Connecticut high school students and one-third of all freshmen reported having been bullied or harassed on school property within the past year.

During a March 11 public hearing on the bill, state Attorney General George Jepsen praised the measure for addressing bullying that occurs off school property and electronically.

"Too often students who are bullied outside of school end up being tardy, skipping classes or skipping school entirely," he said in written testimony. "School becomes a hostile environment for the student, and ultimately impacts the student's ability to live and thrive."

An East Hartford father asked legislators during the March hearing to not confuse typical schoolyard tomfoolery with real bullying. Jose Olmeda said his son was unfairly labeled a bully three years ago when he was 10 and that school officials wouldn't meet with him - the father - to hear a different side of the story. His son now has a letter in his permanent file that classifies him as a bully.

"I believe that my son was used as a scapegoat to enforce the bullying mandate," Olmeda said.

j.reindl@theday.com

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