Some are only a handful of pages long; others are the size of a book. If your children attend school in Massachusetts, the words can affect them.
We're talking about the Bullying Prevention and Intervention Plans that all 394 school districts in the state were required to submit to the Department of Education under a new anti-bullying law signed by Gov. Deval Patrick last May.
"We're going in the right direction," says Ed Donnelly, a retired headmaster who worked for 35 years in the Boston school system. He helped to craft Boston's plan with input from parents, teachers, administrators and students. It's 18 pages and includes everything from the definition of a bully, to forms used to report them.
The plan for your child's school is probably very similar because they are all based on a model provided by the Department of Education. "It does reduce the gray area and it does also tell people who is responsible for what. Everybody has a responsibility. The principals are clearly in the role that they must act on it," Donnelly said.
We reviewed numerous plans from schools across the state and found some of the districts simply copied large sections of the model provided to them, word for word. What may be most surprising though, is what we didn't find. None of the plans require schools to notify police when bullying occurs; it's not a part of the state's anti-bullying law.
"I think they are probably needlessly exposing themselves to a measure of liability," said Mark Leahy, chief of the Northborough Police Department and the president of the Massachusetts Police Chief’s Association. He fears some districts may keep law enforcement in the dark to avoid bad publicity.
Leahy points to a recent survey he conducted of every police chief in the state. Of the 97 who responded, 25 percent said they were never even consulted about their districts bullying plan, a clear violation of the law.
Fifty percent of the police chiefs agree or strongly agree that school systems are reluctant to involve police in school matters. "The principal is not a law enforcement professional and I would hope that rather than having the school administration staff attempt to determine if a crime is occurred, that they are simply reaching out to their law enforcement assets," Leahy said.
Keep in mind how we got here in the first place: In January 2010, South Hadley school administrators were aware that Phoebe Prince was being repeatedly harassed and threatened with violence. By the time police were notified, it was already too late. Phoebe had taken her own life.
Wendy Murphy is a former prosecutor who specialized in crimes against children. "The public is under the impression that we have really good anti-bullying laws on the books right now. They're not aware that they are utterly unenforceable. What if they were aware, would they have supported or condemned them? The public has the right to know," Murphy said.
Chief Leahy says even though school administrators aren't required to involve police, he hopes they will, even if it's just a consultation. "The time to test this relationship is not when a crisis occurs. There should be a meaningful dialogue every day. Without it, the fear is we may be taking an unnecessary risk with the state's most precious resource, our children.”