PEABODY — When the Essex County district attorney's office decided last year to make bullying the focus of its annual school safety conference, officials knew they were taking on an important topic.
Now, with the conference less than three weeks away, they realize it's more vital than ever.
District Attorney Jonathan Blodgett said his office has been "inundated" with calls from educators, law enforcement officials and parents about how to deal with bullying.
The conference, scheduled for April 28 at the Peabody Marriott, is already filled to capacity with 300 registered attendees.
The district attorney's office has had to refuse others because it can't fit more people into the room.
"We'll do another one in the fall because we hate to turn anybody away," Blodgett said. "We always have good attendance at our school safety conferences, but obviously this is a very, very hot topic."
The bullying issue exploded in Massachusetts over the last year with the suicides of Carl Walker Hoover, a 10-year-old Springfield boy, and Phoebe Prince, a 15-year-old from South Hadley.
On the North Shore, parents filled a room at Fuller Meadow School in Middleton last Wednesday to demand answers about a first-grader accused of physically and sexually bullying classmates. The school principal has been placed on administrative leave amid questions about school officials' handling of the case, and Blodgett's office is investigating.
Blodgett said the school safety conference is geared toward helping educators and law enforcement officials recognize the signs of bullying and develop strategies to deal with it.
The consequences of ignoring bullying can be "dire," Blodgett said. The problem is especially insidious with cyberbullying, in which victims are subject to abuse via their cell phones and computers.
"A generation ago, if bullying was going on in the schoolyard, a child could go home to what was typically a safe haven and speak to a trusted adult," Blodgett said. "What we've seen is that now if you're subjected to bullying, it goes unabated through the night. You have somebody who just can't get away from the torment."