Hank Investigates: School Bullying Laws Not Being Followed

(WHDH) — Is there secret bullying going on in your child’s school? Investigative reporter Hank Phillippi Ryan discovered who’s been leaving your kids at risk, and now changes are in the works.

The haunting story made shocking headlines: Phoebe Prince, only 15, was so relentlessly bullied at her Massachusetts high school that in 2010, she hanged herself.

Phoebe’s mother, Anne O’Brien, who now lives in Ireland, wanted something more to be done to protect children from bullying.

O’Brien said, “We had hoped that in our loss things could change and that no one no other family would have to go through what we’ve gone through.”

And things did change. Phoebe’s suicide sparked tough new anti-bullying laws in Massachusetts, signed back in 2010 and 2014.

But our investigation reveals some of those laws are being flat out ignored.

In an interview with Hank Phillippi Ryan, O’Brien told us she was shocked by that news.

For example, one law says schools must keep track of “the number of reported allegations of bullying” and report those complaints to DESE, the Massachusetts Department of Elementary and Secondary Education.

But Hank found that agency, which would not go on camera, simply decided not to collect them. DESE officials explained that has “significant challenges.”

Child advocates tell us that creates a significant problem: now the state has no idea where kids are complaining they’re bullied!

Hank asked Jerry Mogul, Executive Director of Massachusetts Advocates for Children, “What’s at stake here?”

He replied, “What’s at stake here? Kids’ lives.”

The law also requires the state collect “substantiated incidents of bullying.” It did collect that data, and DESE sent us a list of those reports.

But the state left something off that list: The school districts reporting no cases of bullying at all. We found dozens of such schools, where in the last four school years, they had not one case.

Hank asked how likely it was that there was a school district with not one bullying case for four years in a row. Mogul told her–it was not likely. And he added, “For a whole school district its very unlikely. They probably aren’t taking it seriously enough and it needs to be addressed.”

And what’s the state doing with the information it does collect? The law says the education department must “analyze the bullying incident data” and “publish an annual report” for the attorney general and legislative officials.

But we found that report has never been done! Never.

Hank asked, “Do you think this is working?” Mogul told her, “They’re totally out of compliance with the law.”

It’s been nine years since Phoebe’s death. And now, her mother wonders why the system that failed her daughter may still be failing Massachusetts kids.

“I think it’s outrageous,” Anne O’Brien said. “They’re not just a number on a spreadsheet, they’re not just a statistic, these are actual children.”

Three changes are now in the works now as a result of our investigation: Officials at the state education department tell us they will work to begin to collect those bullying allegations. They’ll finally write that annual report. And they’ve already warned schools they must comply with the bullying regulations.

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