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Albany behind curve in taking on bullying; After missed opportunity in June, issue is revisited after boy's death

The push to toughen New York's anti-bullying laws was easily within grasp before lawmakers left town in June. Support flowed from Republicans and Democrats, and there was no loud opposition.

But as happens every year with many important matters at the Capitol, the issue became caught in the frenzy of last-minute bill passing. So it died.

Now, in the nearly two weeks since the suicide of Williamsville North High School freshman Jamey Rodemeyer, a new push is on to quickly get that legislation -- and companion bills with tougher criminal sanctions -- on the agenda when lawmakers reconvene in January.

Advocates are pressing for several new measures, including one that for the first time would address cyberbullying -- even if the abuse occurs away from school grounds.

Another provision would require prospective teachers to receive training in recognizing bullying.

And a new package introduced this week would make "bullycide" -- in which a cyberbully's actions "intentionally or recklessly" cause a victim to commit suicide -- a felony charge of manslaughter. That could permit prosecutors to charge 12- and 13-year-olds with felonies.

Last year, New York State enacted the Dignity for All Students Act, which was strongly supported by gay rights groups. Besides requiring districts to report instances of bullying to the state Education Department and increase training of school personnel, its provisions ban harassment based on color, sexual orientation, race and other factors. It doesn't go into effect until next July.

Holding out Jamey's death as an example, advocates say that the 2010 law did not go far enough because it failed to address bullying through text messages, emails and social media. The law also does not specifically use what some national advocates feel is the more direct term -- "bullying" -- but instead focuses on "harassment."

"What we have on the books doesn't approach addressing the situation that happened outside Buffalo," said State Sen. Stephen M. Saland, a Dutchess County Republican and sponsor of the new anti-bullying bill that has been languishing in the Assembly. His bill specifically defines bullying and gives new disciplinary powers to schools to combat cyberbullying.

"I'm not a supporter of inclusive definitions because I feel the bully is the problem, not the victim," said Brenda High, a Washington State resident and founder of Bully Police USA, a volunteer group that rates state anti-bullying laws. Her son, Jared, 13, shot himself to death in 1998 after chronic incidents of verbal and physical bullying.

But some First Amendment watchers raise free-speech concerns if a law is abused.

"This bill," sponsored by Sen. Jeffrey D. Klein, D-Bronx, "identifies a very serious problem," said Donna E. Lieberman, executive director of the New York Civil Liberties Union. "But instead of criminalizing speech, we need to train teachers and students to recognize and respond to the early signs that a student is being bullied. As we've seen, by the time law enforcement gets involved, it's too late."

Lawmakers say the state has a legal obligation to address cyberbullying taking place off school grounds because of the disruptions and dangers such abuse can bring into a school.

"Ultimately, it finds its way into the classroom and creates this kind of hostile environment and becomes very difficult for the child to be able to cope with," Saland said.

The Saland plan would void a mandate in the 2010 bill for someone on staff to be in charge of handling "human relations in the areas of race, color, weight, national origin, ethnic group, religion, religious practice, disability, sexual orientation, gender and sex." Instead, the new measure mandates that bullying issues be a part of the college curriculum for all prospective teachers before they begin working in the classroom.

Like many other school-related mandate issues over the years, the anti-bullying legislation applies only to public schools and not to private or religious institutions.

Backers say that with the Internet, it no longer matters whether bullying occurs on or off school grounds.

"Before the Internet, a student could escape. You could go home, their family would be there and pretend that the rest of the day did not exist. Now, with the intrusion of Facebook and Twitter, a student can't escape it. So cyberbullying has to be a part of the equation," said Assemblywoman Linda B. Rosenthal, D-Manhattan, the bill's sponsor in the Assembly.

The Saland bill unanimously passed the Senate on June 1 but was not introduced in the Assembly until June 20, the last week of session. Since Jamey's death, the inaction has prompted a number of Western New York Republicans to press Democrats to get the bill moving in January.

Rosenthal said that she knows of no opposition and that the bill became a victim of the last-minute rush of legislation falling off the table at the end of this year's session.

"We'll know in January when we return, but every other week, it seems some poor child is not able to cope with life," she said. "It feels like an epidemic, and it's our duty as a state government to try to do something about it."

Among those pushing the Legislature is Brittany A. Lavonier, 18, who graduated this year from Williamsville North. She recalled daily bullying and daily crying as a seventh- and eighth-grader in middle school.

"I think the law needs to be strengthened because those doing the bullying are not being held accountable or disciplined for their actions," Lavonier said. In the days since Jamey's death, she has gathered more than 3,200 signatures on her online petition to get Albany to enact a law.

Given the student suicides making national headlines over the last several years, school districts say they are looking to Albany for more help.

"Honestly, there are people in charge of schools around the state who say this is all new to them," said Timothy G. Kremer, executive director of the New York State School Boards Association.

Backers of a New York statute that would specifically target cyberbullying say those abusing others use the isolation of their bedroom computers, and sometimes the Internet's capacity for anonymity, to say things that once might not have been said face to face.

The soon-to-be-introduced bill by Klein will add cyberbullying to the state's anti-stalking statute, making it a misdemeanor. It defines violations as the use of computers and other devices to "cause a fear or harm or emotional distress." Its protections apply to victims younger than 21.

The new charge of "bullycide," in which a targeted victim commits suicide, could represent a "game-changer" to help dissuade bullies from using electronic means to abuse their victims, Klein said. "A lot of what we hope for when we pass criminal laws is that they have a chilling effect."

email: tprecious@buffnews.com

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What some other states do

Arkansas: Requires school districts to train staff about bullying and investigate credible reports. A second law bans cyberbullying.

Colorado: Outlaws bullying by electronic means and requires training for teachers on how it affects students.

Washington: Requires school staff members to intervene in bullying situations and requires districts to respond in writing to bullying complaints within five days.

Source: Associated Press