As we go to press, hundreds of educators, students and community members are expected to descend upon the State Capitol to demand the Senate pass a comprehensive bill aimed at stopping bullying in the state’s public schools. The bill passed the state House a year ago, but has since languished in the Senate awaiting a hearing.
“The future of this bill is in the hands of Senate leaders,” said Sean Kosofsky, policy director of the Triangle Foundation, an anti-violence and LBGT advocacy group in Detroit. “Gov. Granholm has said that if it passes, she will sign it. We have the broadest possible coalition pushing this bill. We think it’s the best possible compromise to keep everyone pleased.”
Matt’s Safe School Law, would require school districts to create and report to the state on an anti-bullying policy. The bill is named for Matt Epling, an East Lansing school student who committed suicide as a result of harassment and bullying in July 2002. Some legislators oppose the bill because it includes a list of protected categories including sexual orientation and gender identity and expression.
“I think if you are going to make a statement on bullying, you don’t make special classes of students,” said State Sen. Wayne Kuipers, R-Holland, chair of the Senate Education Committee. “Bullying is a symptom of a larger problem.”
Kuipers said he is working on substitute bills that would address the bigger problems behind bullying. “It is a lack of respect for others,” Kuipers said of the root of the problem. “They (students) are not being taught the proper way to deal with others.”
Kuipers believes his substitute bills would cause a bigger discussion about what he called “character education.”
“In the context of that character discussion, there will be some discussion on bullying.”
The new bills are currently being redrafted and he expects them to be taken up after the Senate’s two-week spring break, which begins Friday. He said he has meetings with Lobby Day participants that day. Asked if he would attend the Lobby Day event, Kuiper said: “No. I wasn’t invited.”
Organizer’s of Wednesday’s Lobby Day hope to push the Senate to hold hearings on Matt’s Safe Schools law.
The House version of the bill passed in March 2007, during the Safe Schools Lobby Day. Organizers had expected a vote three weeks after the Lobby Day. Instead they were presented with a substitute bill that required school districts to adopt an anti-bullying policy similar to the model policy passed in September 2006 by the State Board of Education. The model policy includes a list of protected categories, based on things like sexual orientation, gender identity and expression.
The inclusion of sexual orientation and gender identity and expression in the bills has fired up family advocacy groups like the American Family Association of Michigan. During last year’s lobby event, AFA Michigan’s Gary Glenn was sending faxes condemning the bills and calling on the legislature to kill the final bill.
“Make no mistake, the Senate is a much different battlefield than the House because of party affiliation and individuals involved in letting legislation move or not,” said Derek Smiertka, executive director of Michigan Equality, a statewide LBGT rights organization.