LANSING – The chair of the Senate Education Committee says efforts to pass anti-bullying legislation in the state are stalled because lawmakers can’t define what bullying is – yet he expects local school districts to do a better job than state legislators can.
“One of the problems we’re trying to deal with is: What is the definition of bullying? What does it include?” said Sen. Wayne Kuipers (R-Holland). “If you can’t come up with a clear and meaningful definition, what you essentially create is an employment act for attorneys, because parents and students will sue districts because their interpretation may not match the school district’s interpretation of what bullying is.”
Activists who favor the law scoffed at this argument.
“Sen. Kuipers has no idea of a definition? Perhaps is it because the full definition was stripped from the legislation by his counterparts,” said Kevin Epling, co-director of BullyPolice USA and an anti-bullying legislation advocate. He has been an advocate for tough new bullying standards since his son, Matt, committed suicide after being bullied during the summer before he began high school.
Epling said that earlier versions of the bill had meticulous definitions of bullying developed by experts in both the substance and the law and he accused legislators of offering empty excuses for not getting the bill approved.
“Each time this issue has come up, we get a different answer why it shouldn’t be passed,” said Epling. “It’s not being dishonest, but it’s not being completely honest either. Instead of giving roundabout answers we need our elected officials to clearly state what will and will not work and what they will and will not vote for. But they won’t do that, because they are afraid of the backlash, the comments, the looks of their peers, the e-mails – you know, the bullying they will endure to change their position.”
Indeed, until the wee hours of the last day of the 2008 legislative session, the sticking point was whether or not to enumerate, or list, protected categories. Conservative lawmakers had opposed the enumeration because it included sexual orientation and gender identity and/or expression. Rallied by Gary Glenn of the American Family Association of Michigan, conservatives argued the inclusion of those categories would result in forwarding the so-called “homosexual agenda.”
During that lame duck session, senators came the closest to passing anti-bullying legislation they have ever come. That was accomplished when advocates agreed to strike the enumeration from the bill. But even that legislation died when Sen. Alan Cropsey (R-DeWitt), the Majority Floor Leader in the Michigan Senate, refused to let the bill have an up or down vote.
Faced with state inaction, Kuipers said that school districts needed to stop waiting for the state to act.
“I think (school districts) have to pay attention to what is going on. You can’t turn your head and assume the problem doesn’t exist or is going to go away on its own. I think the solution to the problem though is not necessarily in a state policy but it is in a recognition in school districts that the problem exists and that they’re dealing with it,” said Kuipers. “Not just by expelling students that are getting rough, but by having classes informing kids of what bullying is, that it exists, the consequences of that – because I think, in most cases, the kids that are bullying don’t want it to end up the way it’s ending up. They just don’t know when to stop.”
“Schools have to stop it,” he continued. “That doesn’t take a policy on the state level to deal with the issue.”
Epling says the state has already tried Kuipers’ solution, and it failed.
“Asking schools to ‘take the lead’ without a law is where we started in 2001 when the State Board of Education asked schools to draft policies on bullying. Schools did not respond, and that is why children have been hurt, respect between schools and parents has been tested and, yes, eight children have died,” Epling said. “Schools are actually looking for guidance and help.”
Most recently the suicide of a 12-year-old upper peninsula girl has led Gov. Jennifer Granholm to renew her calls for swift action on anti-bullying legislation.
“This issue has been around for a long time and the unfortunate thing is that kids are committing suicide as a result – or at least we think it is a result of the bullying,” said Kuipers. “And that is very unfortunate, and my heart goes out to the families who find themselves in that position. But we have to make sure we come up with a workable solution that doesn’t overexpose districts and school boards. That’s what were working for.”
Overexposure, for Kuipers, means not opening the door to litigation for anyone “seeking a payday” from schools. When asked specifically about the bullying case out of Hudson which resulted in an $800,000 verdict from a jury, and has lawyers seeking an additional $400,000 in fees, Kuipers says there will always be “some exposure.”
Some say that Kuipers’ solution, however, will result in even more exposure to lawsuits because of the wide variety of definitions that would inevitably be created by those local school districts.
“By telling schools to work on their own, Sen. Kuipers and others are ‘off the hook’ when he and others have been holding the hook for years,” Epling said.
Alicia Skillman, executive director of Triangle Foundation/Michigan Equality, agreed. “When legislators of a state take action and create a law, it shapes the conversation and gives guidance to communities on how to treat people,” she said. “It appears that some of our legislators are shirking their responsibilities to school districts and to the children of our state. I bet the children of this state can easily define bullying and the legislators could do the same if they were really interested in protecting our kids.”
Epling bluntly asked, “So how many children will it take to actually make this a reality? Bullying has contributed to deaths in Michigan, there is no speculating. Speculating is thinking that our Senate will finally act for our children.”
This article ran in full in on http://www.michiganmessenger.com.