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by Sean Kosofsky
It finally happened! Legislation to curb bullying in Michigan’s public schools got a huge boost last week when Governor Jennifer Granholm mentioned it in her State of the State address.
The momentum for the measure began about six years ago when State Representative Buzz Thomas and Triangle Foundation worked to introduce the first-ever piece of legislation to curb bullying in schools. Only a handful of states had ever done so, but advocates for Michigan’s GLBT and questioning youth were determined to take bullying head-on.
As Buzz Thomas puts it, “Michigan requires all students to go to school for one-hundred and eighty days, but we don’t require that they are safe.” He’s right.
Essentially the anti-bullying bill (House Bill 5616) would require that every public school district in Michigan (over 500 of them) implement a policy to curb bullying. The bill also specifically bans bullying based on critical categories, such as weight, race, sexual orientation and gender identity or expression.
This bill is needed because, too often, bullying is ignored or not treated seriously. For minority youth, this can lead to years of isolation, depression, truancy, substance abuse, asocial behavior and even suicide. Sometimes the only way to stop the bullying is through litigation.
Despite widespread support for anti-bullying laws and bi-partisan support for the legislation, key Republican legislative leaders have told the Triangle Foundation that they will not allow the bill to move forward as long as GLBT youth are included in the bill. This startling frankness indicates the political reality we face in Michigan. It should offend every American that lawmakers would leave GLBT youth high and dry, while admitting they are suffering.
During each legislative session for the last six years, Triangle has made sure an anti-bullying bill is reintroduced, and numerous legislators have signed on to support it. Buzz Thomas, now a State Senator, and State Representatives Aldo Vagnozzi (D-Farmington) and Glenn Anderson (D-Westland) have been the champions of this legislation.
This legislation remains one of the most critical bills for Michigan’s GLBT community. If GLBT young people feel valued and safe at school, they are likely to me more well-adjusted, safe, healthy and productive members of their community. Imagine how different our community would be today if none of us had to fear or face anti-GLBT bullying or harassment in school.
There may be a bright spot. When a governor mentions a bill in an election year “State of the State” address, you know it has become a priority. Although Governor Granholm did not mention this bill by name, she was crystal clear that she wanted state political leaders to ban bullying by a change in the law. This could mean the anti-bullying bill may actually see some momentum and some movement.
In Michigan, and in other states, there are coalitions coming together to work for passage of these measures. In most places a leader in this process is usually the statewide GLBT lobbying group and the Gay, Lesbian and Straight Education Network (GLSEN). Child welfare organizations and other professional lobbying organizations are also stepping up.
GLBT community members should talk to their legislators and ask them to support HB 5616. The bill already has 47 co-sponsors on the day of introduction and only needs 56 votes to pass in the House of Representatives.
This comprehensive bill may be the single most effective tool for addressing bullying in schools. It can reduce lawsuits while raising the integrity of our public schools and the dignity of all students who want a safe and welcoming educational experience when they go to school. GLBT youth are only a small piece of the puzzle. The bill is actually named after Matt Epling, who killed himself after being bullied in his East Lansing high school.
Together we can pass this legislation. With Governor Granholm working for passage of this bill, the time is ripe to generate more solid support around the state. Visit http://www.tri.org to find out more about how you can help.