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By Jim Larkin
GENESEE COUNTY – Kevin Epling and the Genesee County Safe Schools Coalition have the same goal: to make schools safe for all students. They’re just taking different routes to accomplishing that goal.
Epling, who will be speaking at the coalition’s 7 p.m. April 14 open meeting at the Unitarian Universalist Church of Flint, is locked in a five-year battle to get the state Legislature to pass “Matt’s Safe School Law.”
The coalition, formed last July, is attempting to educate Genesee County schools about the importance of honoring diversity and empowering students and school personnel to make a difference.
In a nutshell: Epling is focusing statewide while the coalition’s focus is Genesee County. And while the coalition stresses the importance of accepting gay and lesbian students, Epling has firmly placed himself in the center of that sometimes controversial issue in an attempt to get the law passed by those who oppose it because it would protect students who are harassed because of their sexual orientation.
“From my standpoint as a parent, I put myself squarely in the center,” said Epling, 46, a video producer at Michigan State University. “I can understand all sides, but our viewpoints can’t be put ahead of the needs of our children.”
Epling’s talk on April 14 will focus on his struggles to get the law passed. It’s a struggle that began in 2002, when his 14-year-old son, Matt, committed suicide 40 days after a “Welcome to High School” hazing that included eggs and syrup being poured on him. Police did nothing, Epling said, and many responded that it was only “kids being kids.” Epling and his son considered it an assault, an attempt to make incoming freshmen feel like they were nothing and on the lowest rung of the high school totem pole.
“We talked extensively about it and Matt wanted these kids prosecuted,” Epling recalled. “But it (a police report on the hazing) just sat on a desk.”
Finally, the Eplings decided to press formal charges with police. On the day before that was to happen, however, Matt committed suicide.
“Something happened in that intervening 40 days. It affected him much more than we saw on the surface,” Epling said. “A lot of kids do a wonderful job of hiding things.”
Epling and his wife, Tammy, began speaking out in 2003. They were able to get the tradition of hazing stopped at East Lansing schools, where their daughter Kristen is now a senior. And after noticing a rise in teen suicides due to bullying, they began pushing for a state anti-bullying law in 2005. The law would require every school district in Michigan to adopt anti-bullying policies and encourage schools to reach out to parents and law enforcement. It also urges, but does not require, training of all school personnel.
Sound like an easy sell? It hasn’t been. While 40 other states have passed anti-bullying legislation, with Massachusetts in the process, Michigan has balked at doing so. Talk of unfunded mandates and protecting gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgendered students from harassment, has blocked passage year after year.
“What it really comes down to is some people don’t want to impose laws on schools,” Epling explained. “The other piece is identifying people with characteristics (of being bullied) can be problematic.”
But in the meantime, he said, “we’ve allowed unseen violence to take its toll on our children.”
The bill was passed by the state House last year but remains in the Senate Education Committee. Recently, the bill came back into focus after 12-year-old Kimberly Linczeski in the Upper Peninsula committed suicide. The death, her mother told media, was caused by months of unrelenting bullying.
Epling is hopeful that the bill will be passed this legislative session.
“If we pass it this spring it would give our schools time to have policies in place by the start of the (next) school year,” he noted.
“It’s been a long battle and I’m sure some people look at it and say, ‘Is this guy ever going to go away?’ But I’m not going to give up on this.”
While Epling’s battle continues, the Genesee County Safe Schools Coalition is just in the beginning stages. It meets the second Wednesday of the month at 7 p.m. in the Unitarian Universalist Church and has set its initial goals as discovering which local groups will join its efforts and finding out which schools have anti-bullying policies and gay-straight alliances or diversity clubs.
Eventually, it would like to evaluate area schools’ anti-bullying policies, encourage individuals to speak out against school bullying even when their peers do not, and create a function for Genesee County school-based gay-straight alliances and diversity organizations.
Its vision statement is creating an atmosphere within schools “where diversity is recognized, respected and honored, and each person is valued as an integral part of the diverse educational community.”
“We are looking for people who share our desire for safe schools for all children to join us,” said Terri Dinsmore, a coalition member and president of the Genesee County PFLAG.
For more information on the coalition, call 810-496-8302.