Anti-bullying bills making progress around the country

Posted on 27 May 2010 at 3:56pm
By Dana Rudolph | Keen News Service lisakeen@keennewsservice.com

But even some supporters say bills should not specifically identify bullying based on sexual orientation, gender identity as prohibited

SIGNING PROTECTIONS INTO LAW | Massachusetts Gov. Deval Patrick, left, chats with Sirdeaner Walker, of Springfield, Mass., right, as he pauses during a bill signing at the Statehouse in Boston on May 3. Walker’s son, 11-year-old Carl Walker-Hoover, who Walker said had been tormented by classmates, hanged himself in 2009. The bill, signed by Patrick, is meant to crack down on school bullies and require teachers to report bullying to principals, but it does not enumerate the groups to whom the protections apply. (Steven Senne/Associated Press)

There’s a tug-of-war underway to pass more laws to address the growing problem of bullying, and it centers on whether such laws should "enumerate" bullying that targets LGBT youth.

Only eight of the 43 states that have laws to address safe schools enumerate — or specifically identify — bullying based on sexual orientation and gender identity as prohibited conduct.

The New York Assembly passed the enumerated "Dignity For All Students Act" on May 17 and sent it back to the Senate, where an earlier version had died. But a bill that sought to address bullying in Michigan died in 2008 in the state Senate because senators could not agree on whether to enumerate the categories of victims. A new, non-enumerated version of the bill this year passed the state House on May 12, and now heads back to the Senate.

The right-wing American Family Association has been actively opposing language that defines bullying as "reasonably perceived to be motivated by animus or by an actual or perceived characteristic."

In an action alert to supporters in early May, the AFA said the Michigan bill would make bullying a "thought crime" and would still define it as "motivated by a student’s "characteristics," including homosexual behavior and cross-dressing."

In the past several weeks, Massachusetts, Mississippi and Wisconsin have each enacted non-enumerated anti-bullying laws even though LGBT advocates had been pushing for enumerated versions. A non-enumerated bill strengthening Georgia’s anti-bullying laws passed that state’s legislature April 29 and awaits Gov. Sonny Perdue’s signature.

New Hampshire is also feeling its way around the issue. The state already has a non-enumerated anti-bullying law. The state Senate passed a bill May 12 (already passed by the House) that would update the law to include "cyber-bullying" —using electronic devices to harass or intimidate other students. The bill notes, "Bullying in schools has historically included actions shown to be motivated by a pupil’s actual or perceived … sexual orientation [or] … gender identity and expression."

Brenda High

But, the new bill would not require school districts to adopt policies that specifically include protection on the basis of sexual orientation and gender identity.

In contrast, a bill in Illinois that covers bullying specifically targeted at students because of their sexual orientation or gender identity, among other attributes, is now awaiting the signature of Gov. Pat Quinn.

A 2007 survey of students by the Gay, Lesbian, and Straight Education Network found that enumerated policies are more effective than generic ones. In schools where the policies enumerated bullying based on sexual orientation, students were found to be more likely to report harassment problems to staff, and staff were more likely to help.

"For an anti-bullying law to truly protect all students, it must enumerate characteristics of those students most often targeted," said GLSEN spokesperson Daryl Presgraves. "Naming the problem is crucial to addressing it. … Generic policies offer little benefit, and when it comes to hearing homophobic language, they are as effective as having no law at all."

Elizabeth H. Fregiato, Director of Policy and Programs for Parents, Families and Friends of Lesbians and Gays National, agrees.

"While we know that the intent of anti-bullying legislation is good," she said, "the fact is that research has proven that, in states with non-enumerated policies, students are no more protected and schools are no more effective in dealing with this issue than states with no policies at all."

She added that even enumerated laws must be backed with funding for schools to provide anti-bullying training and resources to educators.

But one of the most high profile national groups pushing for laws and education to address the problem of bullying, "Bully Police," is also one of the key opponents of enumeration.

Brenda High, founder of Bully Police, told the NY Daily News in March that she believes that the state’s legislature has repeatedly failed to pass an anti-bullying law because the bill includes language that gives "special protection" to gay children and those with special needs.

On its website (bullypolice.org), Bully Police explains, "Defining victims will slow the process of lawmaking, dividing political parties who will argue over which victims get special rights over other victims. … All children who are bullied are victimized and they all need to be protected."

High founded the group after she lost her son Jared to a bullying-related suicide in 1998.

Bully Police representatives have been visible in pushing for the anti-bullying laws that have been enacted in several other states, including Arizona, Florida, New Hampshire and Virginia, all of which are non-enumerated.

The Florida law, the "Jeffrey Johnston Stand Up for All Students Act," is named for the son of Bully Police state co-director Debra Johnston.

One of the "Recommended Speakers" listed on the Bully Police website is Warren Throckmorton, a professor of psychology at Grove City College in Pennsylvania.

Throckmorton is a leading proponent of counseling aimed at encouraging gay people to overcome their same-sex attractions, and he contributed articles to High’s book "Bullycide in America."

Throckmorton was also listed as a contact on a press release concerning a 2005 workshop held by Parents and Friends of Ex-Gays & Gays. At that conference, Misty Cole, Ohio state director for Bully Police, was invited to speak about why Bully Police believed anti-bullying laws should not be enumerated.

(Throckmorton has since become critical of some of PFOX’s extreme anti-gay positions and is no longer affiliated with the organization.)

Throckmorton also asked High "for her advice to Christians who want to make a difference" for bullied kids. He used her answer in his 2009 article, "’That’s So Gay’ — The Deadly Consequences of Bullying."

Her reply read in part, "We must teach our children Christian values and ask our schools to teach ‘Do Unto Others’ values so that all of our children can have a safe and bully-free environment to learn."

High’s words reflect Throckmorton’s own promotion of the "Golden Rule" — "Do to others as you would have them do to you" — as a way to combat bullying.

Throckmorton has created the "Golden Rule Day" as an alternative observance on the same day as GLSEN’s annual "Day of Silence." GLSEN’s event is meant to bring attention to LGBT-based bullying and harassment. Throckmorton’s event is for "Christian students" who condone neither homosexual behavior nor harassment or violence based upon it, but pledge to follow the Golden Rule.

The battle over enumeration could soon move to the federal level where several bills have been introduced to address the issue. So far, those bills include language to enumerate bullying against LGBT youth. 

© 2010 by Keen News Service. All rights reserved.

This article appeared in the Dallas Voice print edition May 28, 2010.

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