Anti-Bullying Efforts Gain in Mass.

"Dad I just called to say goodbye," says bullied boy, who then shot himself.

November 17, 2009, 7:01 AM

Nov. 17, 2009— -- Carl Joseph Walker-Hoover, 11, bequeathed his worldly possessions -- his Pokemon cards -- to his little brother before he picked up an extension cord, wrapped it around his neck and hanged himself last April. His mom, Sirdeaner Walker, said Carl was a victim of bullying at school.

"The only time I could not protect my son was between the hours of eight and three," said Walker. "He was supposed to be safe at school."

Carl attended a charter school in Springfield, Mass., where, according to his mom, the kids picked on him for everything from the way he dressed to how he talked. Carl's classmates often taunted him and called him "gay." Since that day, Walker, 43, has been on a mission to educate parents and lawmakers that "bullying is not a rite of passage, it's an urgent matter."

William Lassiter of the Center for Prevention of School Violence based in Raleigh, N.C. agrees. Lassiter said national studies show that 27 percent of kids in grades 6 through 12 say they have been bullied in the last 30 days. And 8 percent of American 8th graders reporting missing one day of school per month because of bullying.

Advocates say the situation is even worse for special-education and autistic students. A survey just released by the Massachusetts Advocates for Children showed that of the 400 parents surveyed, almost 90 percent reported that their child had been bullied sometime in the past year.

Julia Landau of MAC said "kids with autism are much more frequent targets of bullying, they act different…their verbal tics are often mocked. More than half of the respondents reported that their children were physically assaulted as well."

And a study released by the Gay, Lesbian and Straight Education Network last year showed that 9 out of 10 gay and lesbian students reported experiencing harassment at school.

Yet, despite the pervasive nature of the problem there are still eight states that do not have anti-bullying laws on the books. Massachusetts is one of them.

But it's not for lack of trying.

Dozens of bills have come before the Massachusetts state legislature in the past few years but all failed in part because teachers, principals and lawmakers can be at odds over how to solve the problem. Educators often argue that existing harassment and assault laws can be used to prevent bullying, and legislators taking a cue from their constituents, are clearly anxious to enact new laws.

"I think legislators are addressing this issue because they don't feel educators have addressed it…legislators are saying this is a priority for our state and our people," said Lassiter.

This week, the Massachusetts statehouse will hear testimony on a number of anti-bullying proposals. The one with the most support would require school districts to track bullying incidents and report any discipline imposed to the state. It would also require the state to develop an anti-bullying model that local schools would follow. Right now, while many schools have anti-bullying policies, enforcement often varies from school to school even classroom to classroom.

Walker believes it's a step in the right direction. "Schools will have to obey the law, there will be uniformity. Right now some schools do a fantastic job and others don't," said Walker.

But Paul Andrews of the Massachusetts Association of School Superintendents, though he agrees that bullying is a big problem, isn't so enthusiastic about legislative efforts to address it. "Our people are already overly involved in bureaucratic procedures…am I going to spend my day chasing down issues and preparing reports when I need to be out in the corridors," he says.

The one thing just about everybody can agree on is that school bullying is increasing. Lassiter points out that with the popularity of cell phones and the advent of sites like YouTube bullying has become more dangerous. "Bullies get their motivation from attention, because they are able now to post video online or make comments and have them seen by a million people, they get a greater sense of power from their bullying activities," said Lassiter.

In Sandwich, Mass., for example, a video of an autistic boy dancing by himself at a school dance was posted on YouTube. The boy's classmates posted nasty comments and harassed him in class. His mother told the Boston Globe that her son had to switch schools because of the taunting.

Brenda High has closely followed these legislative battles for 11 years now. In 1998, her son Jared High killed himself six days after his 13th birthday. "He was bullied by kids that were older than him," said High. "They spit on him and stole stuff from him. Even I didn't think it was serious at the time."

Her son switched schools, but continued to battle depression brought on by the bullying. One day Jared picked up the phone to call his father. "He said, 'Dad I just called to say goodbye,' and he shot himself right then on the phone," said High. Since that time, High started the Web site and has traveled across the country advocating for anti-bullying legislation.

"Sometimes people make these anti-bullying laws into more than they need be. Groups argue about things that don't need to be argued about. Bottom line is they need to get something done," said High.

That's exactly what Sideaner Walker intends to do up at the Massachusetts Statehouse this week where she plans to testify in favor of anti-bullying legislation.

Walker also wants to make sure of one other thing: That her son, Carl, isn't just remembered as the 11-year-old who was bullied at school and then killed himself.

Carl Joseph Walker-Hoover was a boy scout. He played basketball and soccer. He was an honor roll student who stuck up for a friend who was also being bullied, according to his mom. And he was looking forward to wearing the new suit his parents bought him for Easter.

"My son was a great kid. He was loving and fun. He loved life," said Walker.

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