“Students and their parents must have access to a local advocate when school violence or bullying occurs,” says Rep. Mike O’Brien, who champions legislation this week in Pennsylvania that would return the Office of Safe Schools back to Philadelphia where he says violence and bullying is out of control.
The office was created 11 years ago in response to bullying and violence in the Philadelphia School District, but was later closed in 2009 after the Education Department failed to fund operations locally. But today, O’Brien says that increased incidences are again creating a need to enact this service via new legislation.
“Restoring the advocate within Philadelphia is long overdue,” says O’Brien. “Having a person on the ground in our schools was and still is the intent of the law passed more than a decade ago.” He also says that both students and parents are put at risk when violence and bullying interferes with basic learning at Philadelphia public schools.
“In their belief, district officials are not doing enough to resolve the issue,” he says. “This advocate is just the first step in what needs to be done to reduce the incidences of violence in our schools and to give students the opportunity to learn.”
O’Brien has authored legislation that would strengthen anti-bullying programs in school by holding bullies accountable for their actions. That means first-time offenders under 18 would be charged with a summary offense. Three or more offenses would carry a charge of third-degree misdemeanor, while people over 18 would be charged with misdemeanors.
“Detention, in-school suspension or expulsion only go so far,” he says. “A criminal record, or the thought of having one, can and will deter some young people, and even adults, from bullying. And it it doesn’t, bullies will finally be made to pay. It’s time for bullying to be treated like the crime it is.”
O’Brien says he’s modeled his proposed legislation after the “Anti-Bullying Bill of Rights” that was passed in New Jersey this year. It would require schools to amend existing bullying policies by January 2012 and adopt minimum standards that include representation of parents or guardians, school employees, volunteers, students, administrators and people from the community in defense of kids being harassed.
“Bullies have been around forever,” says O’Brien, “but today’s bully has a host of avenues in which to mentally torture his or her victim. Too many suicides, too many young people left with emotional scars that ruin their chance for successful and productive lives.”