By Katie Curley Katzman
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."
Blodgett said what used to be looked at as a rite of passage is now extremely destructive.
"It's so much worse because of the electronic means," Blodgett said. "It used to be, if something happened in the schoolyard, the people went home and cooled off. Now there is no cooling off because the kids are all on their PDA's all day. They Twitter, they Facebook 24/7, and they're on their cells."
Lawmakers have also gotten involved.
State Rep. Mike Costello, D-Newburyport, who voted in favor of the bullying bill, which passed the House last month, said the bill strengthens the criminal charges already on the books.
The bill defines bullying, among other ways, as "the repeated use by a perpetrator of a written, verbal, or electronic expression, or physical act or gesture . . . directed at a victim that causes physical or emotional harm or damage to the victim's property; places the victim in reasonable fear or harm to himself or of damage to his property; [or] creates a hostile environment at school.''
If a school principal determines the bullying constitutes a criminal act, he or she would be required to report the incident to law enforcement.
"The Prince case gave the public a good view of what criminal tools already exist: harassment, criminal threatening, assault and battery, and stalking," Costello said. "The laws already on the books are useful in these cases, and when you add that to the new bill, it brings a holistic approach to handling kids in schools as far as who reports it (bullying), how schools deal and plan."
Costello said it is hard to give a real read on whether bullying has increased or decreased and pointed to increased news coverage as the reason bullying may seem more prevalent.
"Kids are going to be kids, and juvenile behavior sometimes is borderline," Costello said. "But when does it reach criminal? That's the question."
Under the bullying bill, if harassment, stalking or threatening happens three or more times, there are grounds for criminal charges.
Assault and battery is defined as unconsented touching in a harmful way.
"We have to be careful as adults because it is a pretty low threshold," Costello said. "If we hold adults to one standard, we can't hold kids to a stronger standard."
Costello said the bullying bill addresses issues recently brought up in the South Hadley case, where school administrators may have known Prince was being bullied prior to her suicide.
"The bill has mandated reporting so if someone tells the principal, he or she has to call the parents (of both parties)," Costello said. "The victim's parents can assess what's been happening with their child, and if criminal thresholds apply, they can file a criminal complaint."
Costello said he urges parents to talk to their children about bullying and the consequences.
"The bully bill is set up to complement those criminal statutes on the books," Costello said. "It outlines the way to report it, the duty to act on it. No one is able to say under the new bill they had a report of bullying but didn't think it happened on school grounds."