New Hampshire: State seeks to turn back clock on anti-bullying law; Some legislators want to restrict law to school grounds

By Kathy McCormack

Associated Press

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.

Educators and administrators -- many of whom worked to revise New Hampshire's law last year after four teenagers were accused of coercing a special-needs student into getting a tattoo against his will -- strongly support keeping the additional authority to fight bullying off school grounds.

Malcolm Smith, a family education and policy specialist at the University of New Hampshire who was part of a team working on the law last year, said research showed a direct link between "what happens at the bus stop, what happens in the neighborhood, what happens at the burger joint, what happens at the skating rink and what happens in the school."

When parents or schools try to deal with bullying issues on their own, he said, they usually don't get resolved.

"It takes a community working together to solve this meanness that we're seeing," he said. "When you look at the data, our kids are becoming meaner than they've ever been before."

When schools want to fight off-campus bullying, it's not their intent to infringe of free speech or expression, said Robert Trestan, a civil rights counsel for the Anti-Defamation League in the East.

But, for example, if a student tweets from a home computer something that threatens the safety or learning ability of another student, he said, schools need to be on top of that.

"Social media is their social scene," he said of schoolchildren.

Rep. Donna Schlachman, a Democrat from Exeter, introduced last year's bill to update the law because of concerns she was hearing from parents and educators about bullying. She characterized the recent House vote approving the changes as "an overgeneralization about parents' rights."

"There's a sense where 'We don't want the state telling us as parents how to raise our kids, how to educate our kids, or what our disciplinary rights are,'" she said. "I think it's a misreading of the law that occurred that made people feel schools were overreaching into the rights and privacy of kids and parents."

Boehm's bill would require school district employees or board members who know about an instance of off-campus bullying to tell the school principal, who would then have to bring it up with the parents of both bully and victim within 48 hours.

That provision has some school officials worried that the law revision would actually ratchet up the responsibility of schools, regardless of whether it interferes with learning.

"Every school board member under the existing law would as a citizen still have the opportunity to report bullying if they observed it," said Dean Eggert, a lawyer who has represented school districts throughout the state. "I'm not sure if the idea of reducing liability for school districts is consistent with imposing a duty on school board members to report bullying. The two seem to be moving in different directions."

Published: Thu, May 5, 2011