NEWBURYPORT — Today, bullying no longer means being pushed around in the schoolyard. Instead, it is often carried out online and via phone after school is dismissed for the day.
And this week, the state's war on bullies ramped up significantly. In an unusual move, Northwestern District Attorney Elizabeth Scheibel filed criminal charges against nine students for bullying Phoebe Prince, a 15-year-old South Hadley girl who investigators say was so overwhelmed by bullying she committed suicide. Scheibel also blasted school officials for failing to intervene.
Criminal prosecutors are finding themselves on the front lines of combating bullying. Essex County District Attorney Jonathan Blodgett said the problem is ongoing and affecting many school districts in Essex County. Newburyport is among them — three high school-aged students were charged in February with bullying a teen by creating a fake Facebook page in his name and posting comments on it. All three must perform community service and complete counseling, and "a multitude of other appropriate conditions were imposed," according to Blodgett's office.
"We get calls every day from schools, police departments, parent organizations asking how to handle bullying," Blodgett said. "Our philosophy is really to stop it before it starts."
To that end, Blodgett is hosting a sold-out conference in Peabody this month that will focus on cyberbullying. The 300-person conference includes Dr. William Pollack, who will discuss the recent U.S. Secret Service study "Bystander to School Violence;" Dr. Robin Kowalski, author of the book, "Cyberbullying: Bullying in the Digital Age;" and attorney Richard Cole, a nationally known civil rights attorney.
With online media outlets — such as Twitter, Facebook and Myspace — in addition to rampant cell phone use among teens, Blodgett said times and bullying have changed.
"In my seven years as district attorney, I've seen it change," Blodgett said. "I used to drive to work and see kids throwing a Nerf ball at the bus stop, but now all their heads are buried in their BlackBerries."