Your chance to help write a law to stop bullying

Submitted by Jerry Halberstadt on Sun, 11/11/2012 - 01:12

We are working on legislation to stop bullying of elders and people living with handicaps in subsidized apartments in Massachusetts. We are reaching out to residents, social service professionals (including social workers and community workers), advocacy groups, and landlords to seek input, help, and support. We solicit your comments and feedback on this draft proposal.

Your experience can be of great value to us in this process. Your input needs to be in our hands early in Thanksgiving week for us to include it in our submission to the sponsoring legislator before the end of November 2012 for action in 2013 by lawmakers in Massachusetts. Residents of Massachusetts are most needed, but ideas are welcome from anywhere. Contact—Bonnie and Jerry

What remedies exist or can be created in law to protect elders and/or persons living with a handicap (the "residents") from bullying?

What is the best legislative strategy to stop bullying: how to add a legal remedy? What can the Commonwealth do?

A law to prevent bullying of residents in multi-family residences...

A law to prevent harassment and bullying of residents of multi-family residences, with attention to elders and persons living with handicaps residing in subsidized housing.

To clarify the responsibilities of landlords (and management) to assure a safe and secure environment; to provide means of enforcement; to provide an ombudsman and other means for seeking remedy; to provide incentives and standards for training and education of management, staff, and residents; to promote and support programs of research, intervention, training, and education to develop and promulgate effective methods and best practices in order to avoid and correct bullying.


Our opinion, based on participant observation research, our experience, and the experience of professionals in the social services, is that bullying can be significantly diminished by achieving the following steps:

  • Management is trained and proactive (and held to account).
  • Sufficient trained staff on premises enough hours to be effective.
  • Residents, management, and all staff need to work together to inhibit and stop bullying.
  • There needs be be an ombudsman function with appropriate powers to correct failures of the system.
  • There needs to be an internet informational presence as well as an online peer support function. We are open to the Commonwealth providing an anti-bullying web resource, and/or for the Commonwealth to support at least one or more demonstation projects; with the long-term financing possibly from a non-profit source.
  • There needs to be a peer support and information network, with appropriate training and access to professional support but it should be able to operate independently, regardless of the financial support either from the Commonwealth or operating as a non-profit with donations and grants.

While we cannot mandate the specifics of such a solution, however if we have a strong law that punishes management for bullying that takes place on their watch, and an ombudsman to step in when the system fails; management will have an incentive to adopt effective measures, possibly different than the specific ones we imagine. We propose research that can establish what kinds of programs prove most effective.

Contact—Bonnie and Jerry

D R A F T: A law to stop bullying of elders and people living with handicaps

This proposal for "Stop Bullying Elders" legislation builds on and extends the protections of Mass GL Ch 258Ethat makes harassment and bullying illegal, and provides civil and criminal remedies.

This new legislation could be focused on a clarification and definition of the right of a tenant to "peaceful enjoyment" and thus enable effective action in Housing Court, the special court of the Commonwealth charged with landlord-tenant relations.

This proposal is an attempt to identify and correct problems of bullying vulnerable or "different" persons that are not met by current law. It is based on research and experience combatting bullying in subsidized housing for seniors.

We are proposing legislation that would:


that residents should be free of harassment/bullying (including by other residents, staff, or management) in their apartment buildings; and to provide relief and enforcement to protect residents.


to enable an aggrieved resident to find easy access to effective enforcement; to make the landlord responsible for enforcing a policy against bullying; to create and enforce training standards for management and staff; to inform and educate all residents; to support research to understand the sources of, and effective methods for avoiding and stopping bullying; and to create a consumer-oriented ombudsman with appropriate powers.

The specific goals proposed are:

  • Require management to have a policy on bullying. Thus to create a more enforceable standard than the "peaceful enjoyment" clause in leases, derived from English common law. This might enable landlords to more readily than at present to get help from the court in proceedings against a bully.
  • To enable aggrieved residents to seek enforcement remedies by the state by appeal to the courts; to hold management accountable for wrongdoing or negligence; to open the door to negligence suits by aggrieved residents.
  • To have standards for prevention and correction of bullying with oversight and enforcement by the state
  • Establish requirements and funding to support and enforce standards for staffing; and ensure training and education of facility owners; management and staff.
  • Support education for elders and people living with handicaps and for the public, and for professionals and other service personnel in contact with the residents.
  • Provide support for research, intervention, and evaluation programs; with significant participation by elders and people living with handicaps, alone or in collaboration with academics and professionals.

Background on bullying in subsidized housing

Subsidized housing for the residents is often financed by the federal government (HUD programs, Section 8) and/or the state and or municipality. The financing involves mortgages and other loans and benefits. The residents pay ~30 percent of their income as rent. The balance of rent, based on a sometimes-inflated market rate, comes through a subsidy. The owner of the property is usually a national or regional corporation (often non-profit) owning many properties. Management of the properties is often delegated to a for-profit corporation which may be wholly owned by the landlord. The Section 8 subsidies from HUD are mostly attached to the property, there are very few personal Section 8 vouchers available to new residents. Subsidized housing is scarce and the stock of such housing is diminishing as landlords prefer to convert to market rate rentals. Eligibility: elderly, income; younger persons living with a handicap are also eligible.

Residents living in subsidized housing frequently are subject to abuse, harassment, and bullying by other residents and/or by staff. Residents in these out-of-control buildings are constantly under siege from bullying, causing them to suffer from stress and related conditions such as depression, high-blood pressure, stroke, and possibly suicide, and have nowhere to turn for relief.

Within a subsidized apartment building, bullying can take a number of forms:

  • Management/staff bullies resident(s)
  • One resident may bully others
  • A group of residents may bully one or more other residents.
  • Management may join with a resident bully group as a means of social control. In effect, management cedes control over social behavior in the building and may distribute scarce resources preferentially.
  • The bully group can stop other organized activity such as the creation of a legitimate tenants' association.
  • A group can do tremendous harm through social or relational bullying by excluding the target from activities (and by invitation-only events in common areas), by interfering with friendships, by spreading rumors, and by public embarrassment. A person who reaches out for help can be "punished" by social bullying, and this is very difficult to challenge or correct.
  • Bullied individuals can suffer stress, depression, and related physical and emotional trauma, even driven to the edge of suicide.
  • In extreme cases, bullied residents may be forced out of the building.

The agencies and social service bodies tasked with looking into elder abuse are over-burdened and often their employees are fearful of challenging politically-connected landlords and managers. HUD offices defer to management. And no one holds management to account. An aggrieved resident may seek an order of protection, however would likely still face increased hostility and pressure from other residents and management. The resident has no effective redress from a bad management. Residents are afraid to organize or to protest for fear of offending management and the risk of losing their apartment.

Desired outcomes of the proposed law

  • Management should have adequate trained people on the premises to deal with problems as the arise, and ideally to promote normal, healthy activities and interaction.
  • Management needs to be held to account for engaging in, supporting, or permitting bullying by staff or residents.
  • Management needs to have appropriate training in recognizing and dealing with bullying.
  • Residents need to know the limits of behavior and consequences.
  • Residents need standards and enforcement by the state, so that residents can appeal for effective relief.

Barriers to management trying to protect tenants

If management tries to be proactive when persuasion does not work to stop a persistent bully, their only recourse is to seek eviction in Housing Court. This is a difficult, year-long process. The law needs to reinforce the ability of management to control bullies by eviction when necessary, while protecting tenants from retaliation by management.

Management has no financial or legal incentive to be proactive. There needs to be effective oversight and enforcement.

In the absence of specific funding and oversight, management does not allocate resources and staff to quality of life issues such as bullying.

Barriers to relief for aggrieved residents

Bullying/harassing is prohibited by law. The resident can document three or more instances and seek a restraining order. This is difficult to obtain unless there is serious physical injury—psychological abuse is harder to demonstrate. Even a restraining order does not stop the social bullying, hostility, and ostracism by those who support the bully or who mistrust authority. The agency charged with acting on Elder Abuse may not be prepared to intervene in cases of psychological abuse. Seeking redress by other legal means is not possible for most people living in subsidized housing, because they cannot afford legal fees, may not understand their rights, and the law is too complex for a lay person to manage their own law suits.

Using "peaceful enjoyment"

There's already precedent for requiring peaceable behavior. It is written into the lease. Further, landlords who allow pets include pet policies/pet addendums in their leases. These policies/addendums contain language to the effect that a pet who behaves aggressively towards other tenant(s) and/or their guests is in violation of the pet policy—and are violating the victim's right to peaceful enjoyment. What we're asking for is that people should not be allowed to engage in behaviors pets are not allowed to do. It's settled case law (because it hinges on English common law) that landlords with a properly written pet policy that prohibits aggressive or noisy pet behavior and can ask the tenant who owns the pet to either get rid of it or to leave. We're asking that this apply to out-of-control people as well.

Housing court

Jurisdiction: The Housing Court Department has jurisdiction of the use of any real property and activities conducted thereon as such use affects the health, welfare, and safety of any resident, occupant, user or member of the general public and which is subject to regulation by local cities and towns under the state building code, state specialized codes, state sanitary code, and other applicable statutes and ordinances.


A list of our issues and concerns

  • greater public awareness and education of bullying as a threat to health, respect, and dignity: what it is, how to stop it
  • residences and institutions must implement zero-tolerance anti-bullying policies and practices; owners, management, and staff must be accountable.
  • all people should be protected from bullying, so the law should be age-neutral, except where age-specific vulnerabilities, needs, or situations exist.
  • mandated qualifications and training for management and staff of institutions that serve elders and people living with disabilities; (senior centers, HUD housing, housing authorities)
  • supervision/oversight with penalties for inaction or malfeasance
  • a serious ombudsman function
  • innovative programs to provide qualified personnel to work on site, for example, using social work professionals to supervise student interns; outreach workers based in elder services or in senior centers, etc.
  • Keeping pets out of the fray: stop the use of pets to frighten or attack others, do not allow attacks on people by attacks on their pets.
  • Interventions to develop positive community life in residential settings. Peacable Communication & Conflict Resolution, using democratic or consensus principles
  • Enable people to act together to build healthy communities. This requires protection of civil and other rights of elders, for example, right to assemble: ability to organize a tenants' association free from attacks by management or bullies; ability of residents to invite speakers without being censored by management or owners, such as management seeking to impose their political views.
  • support for peer-based research, education, and support for seniors and other vulnerable groups, and to work together with other advocacy groups and community institutions.
  • encouragement and material support for agencies and established organizations whose mission includes helping elders and people living with disabilities as well as for peer support groups. Funding for research.

References and resources

Mass GL Ch 258E

“Abuse”, attempting to cause or causing physical harm to another or placing another in fear of imminent serious physical harm.
“Harassment”, (i) 3 or more acts of willful and malicious conduct aimed at a specific person committed with the intent to cause fear, intimidation, abuse or damage to property and that does in fact cause fear, intimidation, abuse or damage to property...…

Mass GL Ch 265 (stalking)…

Mass GL Ch 71, Section 37O School bullying prohibited; bullying prevention plans…. Includes requirements for a bullying prevention and intervention plan to be included in an evidence-based curriculum; and requirements for intervention and action by staff and principals. And a requirement for the department of education to develop and publish resources and a model plan.

"Stop Bullying" Publications

"Stop bullying elderly people in HUD-subsidized housing: A petition for legislation, administrative rules, and oversight to correct the abuse" (directed to Federal legislation)

Conflict and bullying in HUD housing, a case study

Blog posts related to "stop bullying"

Contact—Bonnie and Jerry


Training on bullying, anger management and related topics is offered for resident service coordinators and for management by New England Resident Service Coordinators, Inc.

Note on social bullying

Social bullying is essentially the same whatever the age; this definition comes from a discussion on children.

Social bullying, sometimes referred to as relational bullying, involves hurting someone’s reputation or relationships. Social bullying includes:

  • Leaving someone out on purpose
  • Telling other [people] not to be friends with someone
  • Spreading rumors about someone
  • Embarrassing someone in public

How to cite this document

A law to stop bullying of elders and people living with handicaps in subsidized apartments. Jerry Halberstadt and "Bonnie" as the "Stop Bullying Elders Committee"

This draft proposal is prepared by the "Stop Bullying Elders" committee,(Bonnie of Somerville, and Jerry Halberstadt of Peabody) for consideration in the 2013 session of the Mass. Legislature.

Contact—Bonnie and Jerry