LANSING – Kevin Epling is no stranger to a broken heart. He lost his 14-year old son Matt to suicide in 2002 after he was bullied in school. Since that time he has lobbied and educated state legislators in the hopes of one day seeing Matt’s Safe School Law passed. On Nov. 2 the senate passed Bill 137 by a vote of 26-11 with all Democrats voting against it. It was not the bill Kevin Epling had imagined. In fact it was worse than he could have ever feared, saying he was “ashamed” of the legislation that carries his dead son’s name.
After a bi-partisan vote moved the bill out of committee, the Republican controlled Senate revised the legislation to include a “moral convictions” clause essentially giving students a license to bully. Under the Republican substitute to SB 412, a bully could continue to harass a student for any perceived bias and simply cite a “moral conviction” as a basis for doing so.
Epling had State Senator Glenn Anderson (D-Westland) read a letter into the record in which he said, “As Michigan languishes behind 47 states in the growing effort to protect our children, I am utterly shocked to learn that our so-called leaders have yet again tampered with Michigan’s anti-bullying bill in the most bizarre ways. Adding language that basically ‘allows bullying’ based on religious beliefs must be the most absurd input I have seen in my almost seven years dealing with this issue. To give people a ‘pass’ because their verbal or physical assault is ‘sanctioned’ by religion is mind-boggling and I am at a loss. Are we going back to the days of the Crusades? This passage negates the rest of the bill. If people claim ‘religious grounds,’ then there will be no reports, no course corrections, and greatly increase the growing tensions in our schools. I have said many times it is the adults who are the problems when we talk about anti-bullying and building a better culture, and they have proven me right, yet again.”
“To the families of the ten reported suicides that were directly linked to bullying and the countless others that have gone unreported, this bill adds insult to injury,” said Anderson. “I have been working for years to pass legislation to provide a safe school environment for all of our students. This bill goes in the exact opposite direction and in fact provides a license to bully,” he added. The Senate Fiscal Agency reports that at least 10 people have committed suicide in the past decade due to bullying.
Democrats attempted to move a more comprehensive bill that would prohibit bullying for any reason, however, this attempt to protect students failed to gain the Republican support needed to bring the all-inclusive Democratic bill up for a vote. Several Democratic amendments to improve the legislation were also defeated by the Republican majority.
“Senate Republicans have effectively created a license to bully instead of taking action to keep our kids safe. Today’s debate and vote in Lansing clearly signals that right-wing conservatives are unwilling to do what’s right for our state,” said Michigan Equality Executive Director Denise Brogan-Kator.
The lack of an enumerations section of the bill was not a surprise. State Republicans have opposed and enumerated policy that includes gender identity and sexual orientation almost annually for the past decade.
“This is a sad day for students across Michigan who have been victims of ruthless bullies. It’s disgraceful that Republicans would block language that protects all of our students,” said Senator John Gleason (D-Flushing). “The bill that was passed today gives bullies a clear blueprint to continue this harmful behavior.”
The Democrats cited obvious instances where bullies would be allowed to harass students based on perceived sexual characteristics without repercussion under this legislation, or allow a student to bully another based on different religious beliefs.
The bill also changed wording so that schools can ignore instances of cyber bullying off school grounds, ignoring current research that shows the amount of cyber bullying occurring in schools and where it is coming from. “Sooner or later anything that happens off school grounds will come into the school. Schools have ignored this issue and it has caused great turmoil. They have also removed a vital step in making sure that individual schools report their findings to the State Board of Education,” said Epling.
Senate Minority Leader Gretchen Whitmer (East Lansing – D) summed up the action in her floor speech to the majority,”You may be able to pat yourselves on the back today and say that you did something, but in actuality you are explicitly outlining how to get away with bullying. Your exceptions have swallowed the rule. As passed today, bullying kids is OK if a student, parent, teacher or school employee can come up with a moral or religious reason for doing it.”
Michigan Equality is encouraging everyone to demand that the Michigan House pass anti-bullying legislation “that matters.” Find the link online at http://equalitymi.org