Daniel Williams

Anti-bullying bills were voted out of committee in both the House and Senate this week, the 14th of Texas’ 20-week regular legislative session held in odd-numbered years.

Back on April 5 House Public Education Chairman Pete Gallego, D-Alpine, appointed a subcommittee on bullying. Rep. Mark Strama, D-Austin, who has filed anti-bullying legislation for the last two sessions, chaired the subcommittee.

On Tuesday, Strama’s subcommittee presented a compromise designed to appease conservatives on the Public Education committee. The bullying subcommittee recommended amending House Bill 1942 by Rep. Diane Patrick, R-Arlington, to include the least controversial elements of other anti-bullying bills and to add the authors of the other bills as co-authors on HB 1942. The newly formed compromise bill requires that anti-bullying materials be included in school health classes and updates the education code to recognize the existence of cyberbullying. Unlike Strama’s original anti-bullying bill, House Bill 224, the compromise only allows administrators to address cyberbullying if it happens on school grounds or at school events. The compromise bill would also allow for the transfer of bullies to different classes or campuses than their victims (currently only the victim may be transferred).

The subcommittee avoided any recognition of LGBT students in its compromise. The bill neither prohibits anti-LGBT discrimination (as legislation filed by Rep. Garnet Coleman, D-Houston, would do) nor requires school districts to report if homophobia or transphobia motivated an incident of bullying (as legislation filed by Sen. Wendy Davis, D-Fort Worth, would do).

In changing the Education Code’s definition of bullying the new version of HB 1942 makes it harder for victims of bullying to be transferred to different classrooms or campuses than their tormentors. The current law allows for a transfer if the bullying physically threatens or harms the victim or the victim’s property, or is “severe, persistent, or pervasive” enough to be “intimidating, threatening, or abusive.” Under the compromise bill a student could only be transferred away from the bully if the victim or victim’s property is harmed or threatened, and the behavior is “severe, persistent, and pervasive,” and the bully exploits an imbalance of power and the bullying disrupts the school environment. The use of the word “and” in the compromise bill where the current language says “or” and the addition of two more requirements to meet the definition of bullying raises the standard for bullying so high that any behavior that qualified would likely already be a criminal offense under Texas’ laws prohibiting terroristic threats and assaults.

The House Public Education Committee approved the compromise in a 10-1 vote. HB 1942 now goes to the House floor for debate. It must pass the House with a majority vote by midnight on May 12. If it does it will then go to the Senate for consideration.

On Thursday the Senate Education Committee also passed anti-bullying legislation. Senate Bill 205 by Sen. John Whitmire, D-Houston, requires every school district in the state to adopt comprehensive anti-bullying policies.

Both Patrick’s and Whitmire’s bills are backed by Equality Texas, the statewide LGBT advocacy group.

Elsewhere in the Senate, a bill to prevent transgender people from marrying people of the opposite sex cleared the jurisprudence committee on Wednesday. SB 723, by Sen. Tommy Williams, R-The Woodlands, would remove a court-ordered “change of sex” from the list of documents that can be used to prove identity when obtaining a marriage license. SB 723 would effectively ban opposite-sex marriage for transgender Texans.

Williams has placed the bill on the “intent calendar” for Monday, April 18. Senate rules require that before a bill can be brought to the Senate floor, two-thirds of senators must agree to debate it. Currently Senate Republicans are one vote short of a two-thirds majority, which means that at least one Senate Democrat must support SB 723 for it to pass. It’s unlikely Williams would have placed SB 723 on the calendar unless he were confident that he has the required two-thirds vote. For contact information for Senate Democrats, go here.

As previously reported by Instant Tea, the House version of the state budget contained a provision requiring public universities that have a Center for Sexuality and Gender to equally fund a “Center for Family and Traditional Values.” The vote to add that provision included two surprises: Log Cabin Republicans-endorsed Rep. Sarah Davis, R-Houston, voted against adding the provision, and LGBT ally Rep. Raphael Anchia, D-Dallas, voted “present, not voting,” effectively abstaining from the vote. Both Davis and Anchia have attempted to walk back their vote this week.

A staffer for Davis said she actually voted for the amendment, but that the voting machine incorrectly reported her vote. Davis has not responded to questions asking why she supports the amendment. On Wednesday Anchia’s chief of staff, Timothy Dickey told Instant Tea that Anchia declined to vote on the amendment because he felt, “This amendment’s stupid. I’m not even going to grace it with a yes or no.”

Meanwhile, the House Redistricting Committee meets today to begin the contentious issue of drawing new districts. The state Constitution requires that districts be redrawn every 10 years to accommodate changes in the state’s population distribution. Currently, the Oak Lawn neighborhood is divided into three different House Districts: 100, represented by Democrat Eric Johnson; 103, represented by Democrat Raphael Anchia; and 108, represented by Republican Dan Branch. The dividing line runs right down the middle of Cedar Springs Road, placing important community organizations such as the John Thomas Community Center, the Cathedral of Hope and the Nelson-Tebedo Clinic in three different districts. The initial redistricting proposal by Rep. Burt Solomons, R-Carrolton, would move the border six blocks east from Cedar Springs to Gilbert, placing the Oak Lawn neighborhood north of Oak Lawn Avenue in District 103 and south of Oak Lawn Avenue in District 108.

Although Solomon’s redistricting proposal would unite the Oak Lawn neighborhood he carefully drew borders statewide to ensure that Republicans maintain their majority in the Texas House. “At first glance, there are districts with the proposed House map that would make Tom Delay blush,” said Rep. Jessica Farrar, D-Houston, leader of the Democratic House Delegation, in a statement on the Solomons plan. “Simply put, this is not a fair or a legal plan. … Without question, Texans deserve better than another redistricting plan that puts politics ahead of fair representation for Texas voters.”

The House Redistricting Committee will hear public testimony on the plan on Monday. The current proposal can be viewed on the Texas Legislative Council Website. The House is certain to hotly debate redistricting for the rest of session, and the final version of the map will likely be very different than the current proposal.