By Paul Leighton
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."
An anti-bullying bill passed by the Massachusetts House of Representatives last month would require school districts to adopt anti-bullying programs and mandate that school officials report instances of bullying.
James Randolph, a Swampscott attorney who worked on the anti-bullying legislation through his association with the Anti-Defamation League, said the reporting mandate is the most important element of the proposed law.
"In the South Hadley case, you wonder if the bullying law had been passed in its current form, if there would have been more indictments," he said.
Blodgett said the consequences of bullying can spread throughout society. He recalled his first school safety conference in 2003 when U.S. Secret Service agents said a common thread in Columbine and other tragedies is that the perpetrators had all been bullied.
"When they said that, there was almost like an audible gasp from the audience," he said.
To combat bullying, Blodgett said parents need to be more vigilant in monitoring and setting limits on their children's use of electronic devices.
"It's OK to tell your child that at 10 o'clock the cell phone goes off, the computer goes off, you're off Facebook," he said. "Parents should be aware who their kids are communicating with. It's not a privacy issue, it's a public safety issue."
Blodgett is hoping society is in the midst of a cultural shift where bullying is no longer viewed with the kind of lax attitude that once applied to issues like domestic violence or smoking in restaurants.
"It takes a while for social mores to change," he said. "Our hope is that as we continue to highlight this, that over time — and hopefully it's a short time — bullying will stop or won't be accepted as a rite of passage. It's not a rite of passage. It's dangerous."
The school safety conference, the eighth annual one run by Blodgett's office, will feature three experts on cyberbullying — William Pollack, author of "Real Boys" and an associate clinical professor in the department of psychiatry at Harvard Medical School; Robin Kowalski, professor of psychology at Clemson University and author of "Cyberbullying: Bullying in the Digital Age"; and former Massachusetts Assistant Attorney General Richard Cole.
Staff writer Paul Leighton can be reached at 978-338-2675 or by e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org.