In addition to the bill, filed March 1, O’Brien in January also introduced HB 271, a measure that would add bullying to the Pennsylvania Crimes Code.
O’Brien said the lack of enforcement in the state’s current antibullying law, and the sharp upswing in reports of bullying and cyberbullying nationwide, necessitated both measures.
“Bullying used to basically happen within the confines of a school and you’d go home and it was over, but now we’re in the more sophisticated cyber age, and bullying is no longer confined to one location, one time of day, one age group,” he said. “I felt the time had come that we need to put some teeth and some penalty in place to let people know that this is more than just a lark but a dangerous and life-altering thing.”
That notion was also addressed at the federal level this week, as the Obamas and top education officials met Thursday with students, parents and child advocates in the first White House Conference on Bullying Prevention.
According to HB 271, which has 28 cosponsors, a bullying charge for a minor would be a summary offense, which upgrades to a third-degree misdemeanor for repeated offenses. For those over 18, the first offense would be considered a third-degree misdemeanor, and repeated offenses would elevate to second-degree misdemeanors.
Pennsylvania’s antibullying law does not reference specific characteristics, such as sexual orientation or gender identity, and HB 879 would not require such definitions but would detail reporting and investigative procedures.
It would amend the 2008 addition to the Public School Code that required schools to adopt an antibullying policy by providing explicit detail of what those policies must include; currently, the law only requires that policies delineate consequences for bullying and stipulate a staff person to receive bullying reports.
O’Brien’s measure, modeled after New Jersey’s Anti-Bullying Bill of Rights, spells out that each public school in the state must, by Jan. 1, 2012, update its policies to include a definition of bullying — including incidents that occur off school grounds — a description of the behavioral code and consequences and remedial actions.
The policy must also include the school’s reporting procedure, which must allow for individuals to make a report anonymously. Staff or employees who witness a bullying incident must verbally report it to the school principal and submit a written report.
The principal would be required to notify the parents of all students involved and initiate an investigation within one day of the initial report, which would be spearheaded by the school’s anti-bullying specialist. The investigation must be completed within 10 days of the submission of the written report and the results reported to the school superintendent within two days of its completion. The results of the investigation would also be submitted to the parents of the children involved and the school’s board of directors.
After review, the superintendent can recommend disciplinary action, training programs, counseling or other intervention services. The parents involved are entitled to ask for a school board hearing to further review the incident.
The board is required to affirm, reject or modify the superintendent’s recommendations at its first meeting following receipt of the report. The board’s decision can be appealed, and parties are entitled to file a complaint with the state or local Human Relations Commission if applicable.
School policies must also include a statement prohibiting retaliation, consequences for falsely accusing someone of harassment, how the policy will be publicized and that the antibullying coordinator’s contact information will be listed online.
Currently, antibullying policies must be revisited every three years, but O’Brien’s bill would mandate annual reviews, as well as publication in each school’s student handbook and the requirement that it be distributed annually to parents.
The measure would require the Department of Education to develop a model policy for schools to follow by September.
The bill does not prevent schools from implementing “more stringent” antibullying laws, which could include the enumeration of protected classes such as sexual orientation and gender identity.
O’Brien said Sen. LeAnna Washington (D-4th Dist.) is also working on an antibullying measure, adding that he’s “cautiously optimistic” that his bills can progress this session.
Jen Colletta can be reached at email@example.com.