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By Jim Larkin
In Plymouth-Canton schools, Brenden Tripp said the bullying started at about age 10 and became so frequent he ended up in the school counselor’s office almost every day. The bullying was so intense that the daily stress led him to vomit at school.
In Ogemaw Heights schools, 17-year-old Cassandra Morris said she got called a dyke and endured constant harassment after she came out as a lesbian.
In Holland, Nate Harder was just 8 years old when he was bullied three different times on his school bus by a fellow student, who ended up punching him at least 12 times.
But they survived. In Cadillac, Alex Harrison did not. The “quiet, brainy kid” committed suicide at age 16 after being bullied for being different. In Ontonagon, in the Upper Peninsula, 12-year-old Kimberly Linczeski was hurting so bad from being bullied she also committed suicide.
And in Lansing, our state capitol, it appears our state legislature will go one more year without passing anti-bullying legislation, according to legislative insiders. It probably will not be until the new legislature takes over, that the issue will be put to a vote again, and even that will depend on the outcome of the high stakes Nov. 2 election.
Not the stories of bullies, the news of the deaths, nor this past week’s federal guidelines by the Obama administration – urging schools to either do a better job of addressing bullying, including against gay, lesbian and transgender people, or lose federal dollars – will likely shake up legislators enough to take action on anti-bullying bills languishing in various shapes.
“I refuse to be stampeded on this,” said Sen. Alan Cropsey, R-Dewitt, the majority floor leader who blocked a vote on an anti-bullying bill two years ago and said it is highly unlikely a revised version will be voted on this year.
Michigan remains just one of five states without an anti-bullying law. More students are left without state legislative remedy here than in any other state. Michigan’s population is more than seven times larger than the next most populous state without an anti-bullying law – Hawaii – and the population of the other three (Montana, South Dakota and North Dakota) are more comparable to the city of Detroit than Michigan.
Embarrassing? State Sen. Deborah L. Cherry, D-Burton, who is a sponsor of several of the bills stuck in the senate, thinks so.
“I just find it to be outrageous,” said Cherry, who is wrapping up her final year in the Senate. “It’s hard to understand why we don’t have it.”
The quickest answer is politics. It can not go to a floor vote because of Cropsey’s objections, which have multiplied during the eight years an anti-bullying law has been proposed. But the most consistent complaint and largest roadblock has been objections to the protections it would give to gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender students. Sue Harder, Nate’s mother, discovered that nearly four years ago, when she joined the fight for a state law.
“I was told point blank that they don’t want to give any sort of equal rights to gay people,” said Harder, who has given up the fight because she does not want her son to have to keep reliving the bullying.
Meanwhile, five bullying-related teen suicides – bullycides – have taken place in Michigan since 2001. And if national percentages from the National Youth Violence Prevention Center can be applied to Michigan, as many as 500,000 youth have either been bullied, bullied someone, or both.
Their stories keep multiplying as legislative silence becomes more deafening.
Perceptions can hurt
Branden Tripp said students started calling him a girl when he was about 10 years old. He didn’t know why.
“I guess it was because I have a more feminine voice than most,” he said.
The bullying only got worse: “Calling me ‘fag’ and ‘gay wad’ started in sixth or seventh grade,” Branden recalled.
Worst yet, Branden hadn’t even come to terms with his own sexuality at that young age. He didn’t consider himself gay. But classmates perceived Branden was, and the name calling became louder and more frequent.
“It was very degrading. I just wanted to be treated like everyone else,” Branden said. “I didn’t know how to deal with it. I was in the counseling office almost every single day.”
Then came the vomiting and the feeling of helplessness and hopelessness. His mother, Toni A. Tripp, said school officials at Plymouth-Canton made her feel she was bothering them when she tried to have her concerns addressed.
“It went from bad to worse,” Toni said. “And every time I walked into the office it was like, ‘yeah, yeah, it’s her again.'”
The Tripps finally moved to Chesaning, where Branden came out. His mother made him promise to tell one teacher or supervisor about his sexual orientation. She wanted him to have someone at school to turn to if problems arose. Now a sophomore, Branden said although there is still bullying at Chesaning, for him the difference in the atmosphere is dramatic.
“It’s been a really different experience here because the teachers are very supportive and the principal, if you have a problem, addresses it,” Branden said.
Just as Branden could not stand school in Plymouth Salem, Cassandra finally gave up and dropped out of school in Ogemaw Heights. Nate Harder stuck it out after being bullied three years ago in Holland. Sue Harder said the district formed a committee after Nate was bullied, did a survey, “and determined they didn’t have a problem.
“Things fell apart as far as communicating,” she recalled. “We have anti-drug campaigns and anti-gang programs but do little about bullying. In order for anything to happen, people have to contact their legislature and say, ‘This is a priority.'”
No priority in Senate
It clearly is not a priority in the state Senate, despite a call 10 years ago for it to be exactly that. In that body, it remains trapped in a dark legislative limbo, not being reported out of the Senate Education Committee and unlikely to be voted on even if it did see the light of day.
Cropsey and other senate Republicans listed their objections to the anti-bullying bill on grounds that it would give “special protections” to gay and lesbian students. Backers of the bill – including gay rights advocate Equality Michigan – relented and agreed to take out references to sexual orientation in the bill that has made it closest to being approved.
Then Cropsey and others said they objected to a clause that prohibits bullying due to a “perceived characteristic.” This time, Equality Michigan said it does not want to budge.
“I think it’s pretty widely accepted that gay kids suffer a disproportionate amount of bullying and that kids are being bullied not just because they are gay but also because they’re perceived to be gay,” said Emily Dievendorf, director of policy at Equality Michigan. “So to not address that is not really addressing the problem.”
However, Cropsey said the bill will not come to a floor vote during the upcoming lame duck session unless there is no enumeration (defining in the bill specific students protected). He also tacked on two other necessities: A list of how many school districts do and do not have anti-bullying policies, and an estimate of the state’s liability should a school district be sued after following the state directive of having a policy. He admits addressing those issues within the confines of a lame duck session is unlikely.
Kevin Epling, co-director of Bully Police USA, whose website states it also opposes enumeration, said no one has ever been able to determine how many districts have anti-bullying policies. He has been pushing an anti-discrimination law since his son committed suicide in 2002 after being bullied in a hazing.
“Once we get close to the goal line it’s always, we need to take this out or take that out,” Epling said. “No one has ever said, we need to put something back in it. We need to make it stronger.
“He (Cropsey) becomes the linchpin of the safety of our kids.”
Lt. Governor John Cherry said the failure of the legislature to address the issue is especially disappointing for him. In 2000, he chaired a Senate subcommittee formed after six-year-old Kayla Rolland of Beecher was killed by a six-year-old classmate who brought a gun to school because he was being bullied.
“One of the major recommendations we made then was that the legislature needed to focus on bullying,” said Cherry, who now presides over the Senate. “It’s not just a question of someone being victimized but also the educational opportunities they miss out on because they are being traumatized. And educational experiences are so much more critical today.”
So to reduce the crucial bullying debate to sexual orientation concerns, Cherry added, is clearly wrong.
“He (Cropsey) is politicizing an issue inappropriately,” Cherry said.
The people respond
If the legislature is unwilling to do anything about bullying, the people who voted them into office certainly seem to be. After the recent rush of national publicity over suicides by bullying victims, residents reacted strongly across the state.
In Grand Rapids, Grand Valley State University students held a candlelight vigil on campus in support of their gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender classmates. In East Lansing, Michigan State University students did the same.
Workshops and programs on anti-bullying were held across the state. In Flint, a discussion on “homophobia, bullying and suicide” was held at the University of Michigan branch. Psychologist Matthew Clark went on a Grand Rapids radio program and listed local resources for gay teens to turn to, including local PFLAG chapters, the Gay, Lesbian & Straight Education Network, which tries to affect positive change in schools, and the Trevor Project, an around-the-clock online crisis and suicide prevention program.
The Michigan Department of Education has scheduled two training workshops designed to help teachers and administrators understand and improve school climate for all youth, especially those who identify as gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgender or questioning. One will be held at the Genesee Intermediate School District in Flint on Nov. 18 and the other at the Muskegon Intermediate School District on Dec. 13.
And those involved for years in educating others about bullying ramped up efforts. Fenton High School theater teacher Lorie Thompson who three years ago presented a high school play about bullying called “Ticking” that was performed before the state legislature, put a new play together called “Bullycide in America” produced by her own theater company, Trust Theatre Ensemble.
“Bullycide in America” was inspired by the book by the same name written by Brenda Hide, founder of Bully Police USA. It is a series of vignettes that tell the bullycide stories of Matt Epling, Alex Harrison, Carl Walker Hoover and others, both through their eyes and the eyes of their parents. It was performed Oct. 28 at the Mott Children Health Center in Flint and Oct. 29 at the Masonic Temple in Flint. Those interested in booking a performance can call (810) 691-1076.
“When I read ‘Bullycide in America’ I could hear the voices of the mothers and the fathers, but could also hear the children. I thought it would make a very good performance piece,” Thompson said. “I just feel theater is the best vehicle for creating awareness.”
Through her work, Thompson has seen and heard plenty of stories of bullying in school, from teens who put fecal matter in another girl’s purse to those spitting on a girl’s prom dress and boys who tricked a fellow student into drinking urine and then tormented him about it. She has a realistic view of bullying.
“It happens anywhere and everywhere there isn’t supervision, in the hallways, in the locker room, on the wrestling team. Kids are very good at it and very manipulative about it,” she said.
“I think every school has their level and share of bullying and we have to admit that no school is perfect. We have to go there to get there. There’s no need to cover it up to try to make your school look better, because I actually think the schools that admit to it and take steps, actually end up looking better.”
Yet she understands how it can be buried under the weight of other pressing issues.
“There is so much emphasis on test scores that we get buried, and we’re neglecting the kid who can’t concentrate on those tests because he is being pushed into a locker whenever our backs are turned.
“I think kids want our help, but we’re just not listening.”