Bill would strengthen Oregon anti-bullying law

Posted on 06 Mar 2009 at 11:13am
By Ryan Kost Associated Press

Study shows more than half of LGBT students report hiding sexual orientation or gender identity

SALEM, Ore. — One after another, Sonya Fischer told the students’ stories.

Luke and Sterling, she said, both have Asperger’s syndrome. "They don’t understand social situations like other students."

Both were harassed, both were called names.

One day, on a crowded bus, some students snapped a picture of Sterling on a cell phone then passed it around to cries of "ugly" and "stupid."

Then there was William. A week before his parents found him dead in their car, a seat belt twisted about his neck, he’d been taunted and bullied at school.

All of this despite the fact that less than 10 years ago Oregon passed an anti-bullying law, said Fischer, a member of Family and Community Together, one of several groups pushing the legislation.

These sorts of stories — and two recently released studies that show more than 30 percent of Oregon teens report being harassed — have legislators introducing a bill to strengthen the old law.

"We all want our students to be safe, and that’s what this is about," said Rep. Sara Gelser, a Corvallis Democrat and chair of the House education committee. Gelser spoke, along with Fischer, at a Wednesday, March 4 press conference about the legislation.

Speakers also took a moment to highlight two reports that showed minority students were more likely to be bullied than their white or straight counterparts.

More than 43 percent of eleventh-grade Native American and Alaska Native students report being harassed compared to the average 30 percent. Just under 50 percent of eighth-grade African-American students reported bullying compared to the average 38 percent.

The numbers were much the same for sexual minorities; more than half of the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender students surveyed for one study reported hiding their sexual orientation or sexual identity.

"Clearly, we are not succeeding," said Ebony Smith, a Portland State University student and a member of the group that helped draft the report on racial minorities. "We have yet to see any noticeable decline in this disparity" since the original legislation passed.

The proposed changes include expanding the law to cover psychological as well as physical harassment and identifying particularly vulnerable "protected classes" — those set apart by race, color, religion, national origin and sexual orientation.

The law also seeks to make the policies more readily available and to give parents and students a clear path to help by having school districts appoint someone responsible for receiving and investigating reports of bullying and harassment.

Finally, districts would provide the Department of Education with data on bullying reports each year. The bill, if approved, would take effect July 1.

These additions might have made all the difference for Rachel Cushman and her brother, two Chinook Indians.

Both were bullied at school, called things like "savages," "heathens" and "stupid," Cushman said. Her brother, who was also dyslexic, was hardest hit. It was "impossible for him to succeed."

"While he was suffering, the teachers would just say ‘That’s how kids are,"’ Cushman said. "This all could have been prevented if there had been stronger bullying legislation."

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