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Definitions of bullying and harassment
Legislation sent to the state Senate would require Michigan schools to adopt anti-bullying and harassment policies. The measure is controversial because it would base the definition of bullying on a 2006 model policy adopted by the state Board of Education, which reads:
“Harassment or bullying” is any gesture or written, verbal, graphic, or physical act … that is reasonably perceived as being motivated either by any actual or perceived characteristic, such as race, color, religion, ancestry, national origin, gender, sexual orientation, gender identity and expression; or a mental, physical, or sensory disability or impairment; or by any other distinguishing characteristic.
Source: Michigan Department of Education
LANSING – Over one hundred students, parents and advocates descended upon the Capitol on March 28. Their goal was to encourage lawmakers to pass Matt’s Safe Schools Law.
And their lobbying effort paid off with the State House voting 59-50 to approve the bill and send it on to the Senate.
State Rep. Pam Byrnes (D-Brighton) who was sponsor of the bill, says it passed on Wednesday because of the lobby day. “We had the supporters there. That presence helped, we were losing people not gaining people.”
Before striking out to meet with lawmakers, the assembled group heard comments from bill sponsors as well as Safe Schools Coalition members. Kevin Epling, father of 14-year-old Matt for whom the bill is named, addressed the group too.
“This is about all kids,” he said. “We have lost four kids in the last four years. We can’t lose anymore.”
Epling’s son committed suicide after being bullied at an East Lansing school.
Dr. Kathleen Blumer of West Bloomfield, with a practice in Dearborn, says she attended because she sees the very real effects of bullying every day in her practice as a physician.
“I know of a child who was bullied for being too Catholic,” the doctor said. “They were teased and bullied everyday.”
The child was a student in a mostly Jewish school in Bloomfield Hills.
Blymer says while not an Emergency Room doctor, she sees the impact of bullying daily. “I see the emotional impact of bullying. Kids not wanting to go to school, kids who become obese and overweight, their school work suffering, or not joining school clubs.”
Midland residents Bob and Denise Malosh say they came to lobby their lawmakers because their own son was a victim of bullying when in middle school. They say while the school responded well, they were aware of other victims who did not receive similar response.
“We are concerned about all students and that they are safe in school,” Bob says.
Piping up, Denise adds, “And we do mean all kids. I am a special education teacher and while BLGTA issues are a concern personally, I’m very concerned about all my students.”
Robert Van Kirk, the President of the Ingham County Youth Commission, and an openly gay student from Lansing attending the Holt public schools, says he has been bullied.
A week earlier, Van Kirk says, he and a female friend were sitting together during gym class, and the female friend was “looking at one of the guys” that she liked. The two started laughing, and “guys” got hostile. “They assumed I was checking him out, so they tried to start shit.”
The incident was only verbal, which Van Kirk says happens a lot in the school locker room. Otherwise he says his school has a “good” track record of addressing bullying incidents.
However, Van Kirk also says the administration tried to prevent the Holt GSA members from attending the lobby day because it was a political lobbying day. Members had to receive permission from parents to miss school.
During an afternoon press conference, Sen. Glenn Anderson, the sponsor the Senate version of the bill, told the assembled lawmakers, including Gov. Jennifer Granholm, and citizen lobbyists the bill needed to be passed quickly.
“We need to push for passage as soon as possible. There is no excuse for a child not to feel safe going to school,” the senator told the group. “Anyone who says differently, shame on them.”
Conservatives attack safe schools bill
LANSING – With about 50 remaining lobby day participants and a busload of students from the Greenville schools, the Michigan House of Representatives voted 59-50 on March 28 to pass Matt’s Safe Schools bill and send it on to the Senate.
The vote broke mostly along party lines, with three Democrats voting against the bill and four Republicans voting for the bill.
Prior to the passage of the bill, the House had a spirited debate, with Republicans forcing up or down votes on 8 different amendments meant to strike enumeration out of the proposed law. The bill that did pass was a substitute bill for the one passed from the House Education Committee two weeks prior. The substitute bill removed the listing of protected classes, instead encompassing a 2005 state board of education model policy which includes enumerated classes.
State Rep. Jacob Jack Hoogendyk (R-Kalamazoo), who turned heads a month ago by testifying for Gary Glenn of the American Family Association of Michigan before the House Education Committee, opposed the bill, calling the inclusion of the model policy as a “trojan horse.”
“Let’s not hide a trojan horse,” he told the House, “by passing a bill with certain kinds of protected classes never before mentioned in Michigan law.”
He went on to call the bill a special interest bill, brought forth by gay rights advocates.
The Safe Schools Coalition does include LBGT organizations such as Triangle Foundation, Michigan Equality and GLSEN National, but it also includes organizations such as Michigan NOW and the ACLU of Michigan. The Michigan Association of School Boards is also said to be supportive of the legislation.
“If this bill doesn’t pass with 110 votes,” Rep. Andy Dillon (D-Wayne County) told the house in rebuttal to Hoogendyk, “It is because you listened to a special interest from Mississippi to make it (the bill) about gays, or about a moral issue.”
The special interest from Mississippi was the American Family Association, Dr. James Dobson’s family values organization based in Tupelo, Mississippi. In recent weeks, the organization has worked with the AFA Michigan to launch a brutal email attack on the legislation. Lawmakers have been flooded with emails opposing the bill as a result.
In one of the most convoluted arguments during debate, Rep. John Stahl, author of a set of bills that failed to gain support last year, but would have allowed discrimination in adoption practices, argued bullying was happening in our schools because we had moved away from God and religion.
“Is it that in our schools we encourage it (bullying)? We have this theory in science we call evolution, are we promoting bullying with survival of the fittest?” he asked before being gaveled down for a third time during his speech for not following House rules.
“For too long, school board have been ignoring this issue,” State Rep. Pam Byrnes said during the debate. “There are psychological scars from this, and it has to stop.”
The bill is now passed on to the State Senate. It is unknown if the Senate will pass the bill, or even take it up. It will be referred to the Senate Education committee which is chaired by Sen. Wayne Kuippers who is on record opposing anti-bullying legislation.