As news came out of Oregon last week pointing out the failure of that state’s non-enumerated anti-bullying legislation (in place for close to 10 years) to protect minorities, Michigan’s community continued to debate the same core issues and challenges.
For the first time since lobbying for Matt’s Safe Schools bill began several years ago, legislation with that name has a chance to pass out of committee in the state Senate, onto the floor where it has enough support to pass and then be signed into law by Gov. Jennifer Granholm.
But a heated schism has erupted amongst the LGBT activist groups fighting for passage of the anti-bullying legislation. On one side are people who want to see a strong bill that specifies what categories of students would be protected, referred to as enumeration. They also want the anti-bullying bill to be specific about any schools board’s policy implementation, penalties and time lines.
On the other side are activists that believe only a compromise bill has any hope of passage through the Republican-controlled Michigan Senate.
Tempers flared when it was discovered that staff people at the Triangle Foundation, an LGBT rights group in Detroit, had agreed to support a weakened version of the bill that does not include enumeration or other specifics, introduced by State Sen. Ron Jelinek (R-Three Oaks) in February.
All parties are struggling to come to some unity in anticipation of a planned lobby day on March 25, when hundreds of people are expected at the capitol to lobby for some version of the anti-bullying bill.
‘Safe Schools bill lite’ step in right direction
Prior to the Jelinek bill’s introduction, State Sen. Glenn Anderson (D-Westland) had introduced a tougher anti-bullying bill that includes enumeration and many other details. But Anderson has acknowledged that passage of the Jelinek bill may be the only thing the Republican-led Senate will do.
“One school of thought is that if the legislature passes this (compromise bill) they then feel like they are off the hook on doing anything else. The other school of thought is to take small – very small steps that don’t make us very happy – with the intent of going back and revisiting it later and strengthening it. And that tends to be many times how the legislature works,” said Anderson.
Anderson has signed on as a co-sponsor of the Jelinek compromise bill.
“Sen. Jelinek introduced (what) I would say (is) a safe schools bill-lite – and I guess you might say quite light. But I do believe it’s a step in the right direction. It’s not where I would like to see us wind up in the long run, certainly it’s not,” Anderson said. “But what I’m hoping for is that we can get folks together and I guess develop a strategy. And like I said, I haven’t given up and I’m not going to give up, on my legislation. My full intent is to see that every child in the state is protected when they go to school.”
The Jelinek bill will mandate schools to create an anti-bullying policy, hold a public hearing before adopting that policy and report it to the State Department of Education. It does not give a concise definition of bullying, nor does it provide for any required reporting procedures.
The Jelinek compromise bill is likely to pass the Senate, even as the LBGT community continues to argue over the ramifications. The statewide organizations have been split, with Triangle on one side of the issue pushing for the compromise bill and Michigan Equality and the LBGT and Ally Caucus of the Democratic Party pushing for a fully inclusive bill.
Alicia Skillman, executive director of Triangle Foundation, said the public debate on the compromise is damaging the bill and the effectiveness of the LGBT community to lobby legislators.
“It (the split and conversation) is damaging the bill, and it is damaging all LGBT issues in Michigan where we need the Legislature to work with us,” Skillman said in a phone interview. “We will ruin chances to get other bills made into laws in Michigan.”
Phil Volk, a leader in the newly formed LGBT and Ally Caucus of the Michigan Democratic Party, opposes the compromise and takes issue with Skillman’s argument.
“This is what they play every time,” Volk said. He charges that Triangle is attempting to muffle dissent in the LGBT community by citing a need for unity.
Volk said the split in the Safe Schools Coalition, which has been pushing anti-bullying legislation, represents a larger schism forming in the LGBT community in Michigan. He argues that the grass roots, those he defines as blue-collar workers and the poor, have been cut out of the process. He said organizations representing those constituencies have not felt welcome at the table with the non-profits like Triangle.
Volk said his organization has already swayed 14 legislators on the pending legislation, changing yes votes to no votes unless the bill includes enumeration. Volk declined to identify those legislators because he did not want Triangle Foundation to “hammer” them.
He added that confrontation was inevitable.
“There had to be a blow-up. The average LGBT person no longer trusts or respects the non-profits,” he said. “We have to get all of our personal dirt out in the public. Then, after that, let’s redesign all this to create a coalition that listens to the average LGBT person and doesn’t talk down to them.”
Skillman has called for a meeting with those concerned about the growing schism in the community. In an e-mail sent last Wednesday to a Triangle distribution list she wrote, “We’d like to arrange a meeting with everyone. The current situation is very damaging to our community, not just the bullying issue but all of our issues. We would like to arrange a meeting with all parties involved and we do not want to miss anyone who wants to participate.”
Julie Nemecek, co-director of Michigan Equality, another LGBT group that has been lobbying for passage of the anti-bullying legislation, said she supported more conversation.
“I think reasoned discourse is an important part of the process of inserting everyone in the LGBT community into decision making,” she said. She noted that while Michigan Equality planned to attend any such meetings, they had not as yet been invited by Triangle to participate.
She also said she felt the public discussion about the proposed compromise legislation was healthy. In that vein, Michigan Equality sent out an e-mail to their distribution list on Monday, March 9, asking those interested in grassroots organizing to step forward and be part of community open forum discussions.
On the other hand, a spokesperson for Affirmations, an LGBT community center in Ferndale, said the debate is counterproductive.
“I would definitely have to say we agree with Alicia (Skillman of Triangle),” said Cass Varner, communications manager for Affirmations. “The discussion “is damaging to the community.”
Ground game in the works
As the community fights to find its way, Triangle Foundation is preparing for the eventual passage of the Jelinek bill. In multiple interviews with Triangle Foundation staff, both on the record and in background, they have consistently talked about a ground game following the passage of the Jelinek bill. That ground game would include activists fanning out across the state to present local school boards with the state Board of Education’s model policy on bullying. Activists would then ask the local school authorities to adopt that model language.
“I would like to see a plan for doing that. What will more likely happen is a handful of schools will be picked for the initial contacts and we will go from there,” said Nemecek. “My understanding is that you would work with local boards to bring enumeration into the local policies.”
And while questions linger about whether the strategy will work, Skillman says it can. “Triangle, working with local groups, will assist the grassroots effort to help every local school district to adopt the model policy as established by the State Board of Education. Together, we must organize a ground game like nothing seen before in Michigan,” she said.
Don Wotruba, associate director of the Michigan Association of School Boards, thinks this strategy will work.
“Every board needs to have a policy about harassment and bullying. We think it (a law) would be a good way to have a discussion. They have the adopted (state of Michigan Department of Education) policy and they can send that out,” said Wotruba. “We think that is a healthy path. The outcome has to be decided locally. An open discussion in an open meeting will futher that.”
According to MASB spokesperson Bob Ebersol, an estimated 85 to 90 percent of Michigan’s public school districts have some form of anti-bullying policy in place already. A review of policies from Ann Arbor, Marquette, Bay City, Detroit, Saginaw, Traverse City and Williamston Community Schools, found that only two of those districts, Marquette and Traverse City, had board-level policies. The remainder had the policies in the student codes of conduct, a tool approved by administrators, not the elected governing body of the school district.