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Coalition continues to fracture over anti-bullying legislation

By |2018-01-15T23:07:02-05:00March 5th, 2009|News|

A coalition of LGBT and advocacy groups supporting Michigan anti-bullying bill Matt’s Safe Shools continues to split apart amid a decision by some of the coalition’s members to change course and begin supporting a version of the bill that does not specify lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender students as being protected by the bill.
The Safe Schools Coalition – which includes several LGBT groups, the Michigan Association of School Administrators and the American Civil Liberties Union of Michigan – has been pushing the Legislature to pass anti-bullying legislation. From 2001 until early December 2008, supporters stressed that the bill had to enumerate, or specify, the protected classes covered by legislation. Supporters of enumeration say that without it, the proposed legislation lacks teeth.
But two weeks ago, Jean Doss, a lobbyist representing Detroit-based Triangle Foundation – which is part of the coalition – told Between the Lines that a compromise bill that arose in the lame duck session of the Senate would protect all youth without enumeration. “These are very tough decisions. They’re decisions that are very hard for people outside the legislative process to understand because they felt that the bill was further weakened in its ability to protect all children,” Doss said of the bill that passed the House last session. “This is not a GLBT bill. This is a bill to protect all children. We had to make a decision that after eight years of advocacy on this and strong work that this was still better than nothing.”
However, others believe that a law without enumeration is better than no law at all.
Longtime political activist and recently elected chair of the LGBT and Allied Caucus of the Michigan Democratic Party Phil Volk stated on Feb. 23 that the caucus will not support any anti-bullying legislation that does not include enumeration.
Julie Nemecek, co-director of Michigan Equality, sent an e-mail to supporters Wednesday saying her organization would not back the compromise bill either. “Michigan Equality will only support legislation that includes enumeration of protections which includes sexual orientation, gender identity, and gender expression,” she wrote. “While we believe protections based on religion, ethnicity, height, weight, income-level and many other things are important, we believe the exclusion of sexual orientation and gender identity and expression from legislation does little to stop the systemic verbal, social and physical abuse directed at LGBT people; including many children and teenagers.”
In addition, Log Cabin Republicans of Michigan, a gay Republican group, said it supports enumerated legislation. “The unenumerated bill is a huge mistake,” said Log Cabin President Noel Siksai. “Passing it to get something through that doesn’t have the necessary protections is only going to lead to abuse. If school boards don’t have an enumerated bill to comply with, there’s no incentive for them to adopt the enumerated policy.”

This is not the first time a schism has appeared in the coalition. In March of 2007, coalition members agreed to a compromise bill in the state House that removed enumeration and instead made reference to it in a second bill tie-barred to legislation that required school districts to adopt a 2006 model policy that defines “harassment or bullying…as being motivated either by any actual or perceived characteristic, such as race, color, religion, ancestry, national origin, gender, sexual orientation, gender identity and expression.”
Disagreements over language of the bill have caused it to be rewritten and die several times in both the House of Representatives and the Senate.
Some original proponents of the bill are sticking by the belief that the most important matter is getting the bill passed – even at the cost of losing enumeration.
Kevin Epling, father of Matt Epling, who committed suicide in 2002 after being bullied and after whom the bill is named, said passing anti-bullying legislation is an urgency. He backs the compromise bill, which has the support of Sen. Wayne Kuipers (R-Holland).
“Since we have been involved, five additional families have lost children to suicide due to bullying,” he said. “Having something in place for every child in Michigan is better than what we currently have. As a society we cannot continue allowing our children to pay the price for our failure to put them first. I think people need to read the legislation and understand there has been tremendous cooperation and compromise on all sides to craft something that will guide schools, inform parents and in the end protect students.”
Epling acknowledged there could have been more communication.
“We are further than we have ever been. Hundreds of people across this state have worked together to make this happen,” he said. “This is a time we should band together and complete the mission at hand, not delve back into what is ‘mine’ or ‘yours,’ but what is right for ‘us’ as a society.”

Comprehensive anti-bullying legislation has been fighting tooth and nail through the state Legislature since 2001. At every turn, Gary Glenn from the American Family Association of Michigan was there to oppose the legislation for one reason or another.
Glenn, a well-known opponent to the LGBT community, is back at it again, opposing even the compromise bill that would remove the controversial enumeration section that defines protected categories.
Supporters of the bill had hoped that removing enumeration would stave off attacks from conservative Republicans, helping to pass it into legislation faster.
But Glenn, who has opposed enumeration for years, said the compromise bill doesn’t go far enough. Under the compromise language, bullying would be defined as animus towards a person based on real or perceived characteristics.
“That ‘characteristics’ language does not define bullying,” Glenn said of the bill’s language. “It defines one of innumerable motivations for bullying. Of all possible motivations for bullying, why makes that one so special that it’s the only one cited by the legislation?”
Glenn would prefer language similar to a late-night, last-second piece of legislation introduced by Sen. Alan Cropsey (R-DeWitt) that merely referenced bullying as “bad” and proscribed local school districts to pass anti-bullying policies.

Safe Schools Lobby Day
To show support for passage of Matt’s Safe Schools Law
8 a.m.-3 p.m. March 25
Capitol Building, Lansing

Editor’s Note: Todd A. Heywood works as a Capitol reporter for Between The Lines newspaper and worked briefly for Michigan Equality last year.

Additional reporting by Jessica Carreras.

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