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Pols Call for Action in Response to Teen’s Death

January 15, 2019
Anna Aslanian, 16-year-old Lowell High student who killed herself after years of being bullied, in a photo taken at her 16th birthday party. SUN/Julia Malakie Sun staff photos can be ordered by visiting our SmugMug site.

LOWELL -- A trio of elected officials vowed to take local and state action to curtail bullying in schools and help get victims help, a day after The Sun detailed the death of 16-year-old Lowell High School student Anna Aslanian, who took her own life after relentless bullying.

The officials emphasized they want to ensure such a tragedy doesn’t happen to one more student, devastating yet another family.

A Greater Lowell Technical High School Committee member from Lowell, Ray Boutin, said he has already been in contact with state legislators about a bill that would allow victims and their families learn how a school disciplines bullies.

Boutin called it a “victim bill of rights.” It would empower students to come forward, he said. Aslanian did not report the bullying at Lowell High School, and did not feel she had a safe outlet at the school.

Currently, school administrators may reprimand a bully, but school officials are not allowed to tell the victim or their family what happened because of the bully’s privacy rights. That needs to change, Boutin said.

“Victims should be told there was a punishment, and there was corrective action toward the person doing the bullying,” Boutin said. “The victims should know it’s going to be handled, and there will be known consequences.”

This change would go a long way to preventing these tragedies, he stressed.

Lowell City Councilor Rita Mercier also said she plans to file a motion addressing this state policy.

Her motion will request the Lowell Statehouse delegation to revisit the state bullying laws, amending the laws so victims and their families can learn the bullies’ fate. The motion is expected to be on the Jan. 22 City Council agenda.

Too often, parents and victims are left to assume nothing has been done to reprimand the bullies, Mercier said. These families have a right to know, she emphasized.

“You need to send a message,” Mercier said. “You have to let people know this is going to happen.”

Edward Kennedy, the city councilor who took office earlier this month as the 1st Middlesex District state senator, said he will check out what Mercier files in the coming days. He added that bullying has gotten out of control on social media.

Telling a student who has filed a complaint what action the school has taken against an accused bully could be a breach of privacy laws, said Lowell School Committee member Gerry Nutter.

“The students involved have the right to privacy,” he said.

This policy change has been floated before, said Glenn Koocher, executive director of the Massachusetts Association of School Committees.

Criminal complaints involving people 18 years old and older are public, but student discipline is confidential because juvenile cases are not public, he said.

“There are constitutional issues and privacy issues that would need to be addressed,” Koocher said.

In addition, Lowell Mayor Bill Samaras said he plans to propose a mayor’s task force that would address bullying in schools, and how to better help students.

The former Lowell High School headmaster wants to bring together parents, school officials, health professionals and others to look into this problem that extends well beyond the city’s borders.

“We have some good programs in the schools, but it’s obvious we have to do more,” Samaras said. “This unfortunate, tragic situation showed we clearly have to do more.”

He compared the task force to the Mayor’s Opiate Task Force, which he said has been successful in suggesting new approaches in the fight against the opioid epidemic.

Aslanian’s mother, Itea, said in a previous interview that schools need to provide a safe space for students to report their problems. The students could vent to a trained professional, and be assured the conversation is just between them, she said.

City Councilor Jim Milinazzo said students need to have that safe space in schools. He recommended that school leaders and psychologists come together and develop a plan to address this.

“We really need to take a step back, and make a plan to ensure young people feel safe and can get the assistance they need,” Milinazzo said.

City Councilor Rodney Elliott said schools need to take bullying seriously, and make sure it’s not swept under the rug.

School employees must be more aggressive monitoring the cafeterias and hallways, where bullying is taking place.

“They have to be vigilant,” he said. “It’s unacceptable this is being allowed to take place.”

Much of the bullying doesn’t get reported, stressed City Councilor Dave Conway, a former housemaster at the high school.

The victims may think if they tell on a bully, it’s going to get worse, he said. In reality, it doesn’t work that way, Conway added. Students need to be encouraged by school officials to report the bullying, he said.

“We need to provide an outlet, a safety net for these kids where they can go and feel safe,” Conway said.

Class discussions about bullying should start at a younger age, said City Councilor John Leahy. Speakers should come in and give anti-bullying talks, and then the class should discuss the topic after, he recommended.

School staff should also receive more training to address bullying, Leahy said.

In the months since Anna’s death, Nutter said the School Committee has not passed any changes to district policy regarding bullying or mental health supports.

The district does have initiatives in place, but he said “there’s only so much a school district can do.”

He said the district has great partners in health and wellness fields, however, “we don’t always get the parent and guardian support.” As the parent of a high school senior, he said it’s important parents talk to their children about bullying.

Nutter believes any changes to the district’s procedures should come from educators in the district. In other words, “leave it to the professionals.”

“We have policies in place and the superintendent and the administration if they think something should change they’ll bring it to us,” he said.

School Committee member Jackie Doherty said she believes the district needs more staff who will directly work with students and address “social and emotional” needs.

“We don’t have enough social workers in schools,” she said. “Every day we hear about students leaving our schools by ambulance because of mental health. That’s a dramatic example.”

The district’s finances have pushed the schools to focus on areas measured by state testing, Doherty said. However, she argued a well-rounded education includes lessons on kindness and teaching students how to address their emotions.

These thoughts were echoed by Lyndsey Killilea, a special education social worker at Stoklosa Middle School and President of the Lowell School Administrators Association. Her union represents guidance counselors, social workers and assistant principals -- employees who are usually “first on the chopping block” for budget cuts, she said.

“Kids cannot have academic success without their social emotional needs met, but the people who are doing this are the people who keep getting cut,” she said

Killilea said Stoklosa, a school of almost 700, employs two social workers, one guidance counselor and one assistant principal. These people, not teachers, generally address issues like bullying and other social and emotional needs.

She said the schools need more employees in these type of positions to support students’ mental health and wellness.

“We need to create an environment where mental health is a priority,” she said. “Maybe people see the high price tag (of these positions), but losing the lives of our youth is a high price tag.”

Doherty -- who said she remembers being bullied in seventh grade -- said the School Committee should discuss increasing support for social and emotional needs during future meetings.

School Committee members Andre Descoteaux, Robert Hoey Jr., Dominik Lay and Connie Martin did not respond to requests for comment.

State Reps. Thomas Golden, David Nangle, and Rady Mom did not return messages. Police Superintendent Kelly Richardson and City Councilors Vesna Nuon and Karen Cirillo did not return telephone messages seeking comment.

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