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By Dawn Wolfe Gutterman
LANSING – On Jan. 25, state Representative Glenn Anderson introduced a bill that, if adopted, will make Michigan schools safer for all of the children who attend them.
“Matt’s Safe School Law,” a ban on bullying and harassment in public schools, is named after Matt Epling, a fourteen-year-old East Lansing student who killed himself in 2003 after a bullying incident involving several older students.
The bill would require all public schools to enact a ban on bullying or harassment of students “based on a pupil’s actual or perceived religion, race, color, national origin, age, sex, sexual orientation, disability, height, weight, gender identity, socioeconomic status, or any other distinguishing characteristic or…. association with another person who has or is perceived to have any of these characteristics.”
Anderson said he named the bill after reading a report about Epling in the Lansing State Journal, but that he has been worried about the subject for a long time.
“I had seen attempts to try to deal with the issue, they had never gone the full way through [to becoming a law],” Anderson said. “I just thought it was something that needed to be addressed and was hoping that I would have a possibility of getting it through.”
Anderson said he is concerned about self-named “pro-family” groups that may oppose his bill because it includes protections for LGBT students.
“We’ve got to build a strong coalition of all groups and make it clear that this is for the protection of all children – they [LGBT kids] are on the receiving end more than other kids – but it’s for the protection of all children across the state of Michigan.”
Asked his opinion about groups that would stop a bill designed to make Michigan’s schools safer for children, Anderson said, “No child in the state of Michigan in this date and time does not deserve a safe environment when they are at school for any reason.”
“This bill is to ensure the safety of all our children, not only in our schools but within our communities,” said Kevin Epling, Matt’s father, of his reason for allowing Representative Anderson to name the bill after his deceased son. “A safe environment is a healthy learning environment, and that is what we are trying to establish.”
Governor Jennifer Granholm agrees, to the extent that she mentioned the need for anti-bullying legislation during her Jan. 25 State of the State address.
Addressing Michigan’s parents, Granholm said, “We’ll also work to make sure that your children are safe in their schools. No child in Michigan should have to be the victim of a schoolyard bully, and no child should have their learning disrupted by a child who’s unruly. That is why, tonight, I am urging this Legislature to require every school district in Michigan to have tough and effective anti-bullying policies.”
According to a report conducted by Harris Interactive and released by the Gay Lesbian Straight Education Network in December, being perceived, as LGBT is actually the second-most cited reason that Michigan students are subjected to bullying.
“The most common types of bullying, name calling and harassment were based on appearance, actual or perceived sexual orientation, and gender expression. A majority (71 percent) of the students were harassed due to appearance, two-thirds (67 percent) were harassed because they were or were thought to be lesbian, gay, or bisexual, and 60 percent were harassed due to their gender expression.”
GLSEN isn’t the only national organization concerned about bullying. According to the website of the federal government’s National Youth Violence Prevention Center, “More than one in six students in grades 6 to 10 say they are bullied sometimes, and more than one in 12 say they are bullied once a week or more.”
Michigan’s students are also worried, according to the GLSEN report.
“More than a third (35 percent) of all Michigan students thought that bullying, name calling and harassment was a somewhat or serious problem in their schools,” according to the report.
Michigan students who responded to the Harris poll also said that the staff at their schools isn’t necessarily proactive in stopping harassment.
“When teachers or other staff heard derogatory remarks or biased language, intervention was not as common as expected. There was no correction or consequences when racist, homophobic, or sexist remarks were made as often as 30 percent, 27 percent, and 25 percent of the time respectively,” the report says.
More troubling is the fact that students, perceiving a lack of support from teachers and staff, aren’t reporting incidents of harassment or even physical bullying.
“A majority (67 percent) of students who experienced harassment or assault at school did not report it to a teacher, principal or other school staff person. More than a quarter (26 percent) of students said they didn’t report incidents because they believed that school staff would not care or believe them, or that it would only make the situation worse,” according to the report.
Matt’s Safe School Law would mandate that school staff act on reports of bullying or harassment, while protecting children who report bullying or harassment from disciplinary action by the school. The bill also requires schools to form policies to discipline students who falsely report an incident of harassment or bullying.
A different GLSEN report, issued in 2004, reveals that while being perceived, as LGBT may be only the second reason that students are harassed and/or bullied at school, LGBT students are at a substantially high risk of being victimized.
“More than 84 percent of lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender students report being verbally harassed because of their sexual orientation and nearly 40 percent report being physically harassed,” the report says. “And while all of this is occurring nearly 85 percent of LGBT students report that faculty or staff never intervened or intervened only some of the time when present and homophobic remarks were made.”
The 2004 report gave the state of Michigan a grade of F for its lack of protection for students.
MacDonald Middle School in East Lansing has established a scholarship in Matt Epling’s name. According to a web site about the scholarship, “Our hope is to keep Matt’s memory alive by encouraging a creative way for 7th and 8th graders to express themselves through poetry, art and the wide variety of writing styles one can pursue.” To donate, make a check out to the Matt Epling Creative Arts Scholarship/MacDonald Middle School and mail it to East Lansing Public Schools, 509 Burcham, East Lansing, MI, 48823.