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by Dana Rudolph
There’s a tug-of-war underway in the movement to pass more laws to address the growing problem of bullying, and it centers on whether such laws should “enumerate” bullying that targets LGBT youth.
Only eight of the 43 states that have laws to address safe schools enumerate – or specifically identify – bullying based on sexual orientation and gender identity as prohibited conduct. Several other states – including both those with and without bullying policies already in place – are debating whether to include enumeration in their own laws.
The New York Assembly passed the enumerated “Dignity For All Students Act” on May 17 and sent it back to the Senate, where an earlier version had died.
But a bill that sought to address bullying in Michigan died in December 2008 in the state Senate because senators could not agree on whether to enumerate the categories of victims. A new, non-enumerated version of the bill this year passed the state House on May 12, and now heads back to the Senate. Even without enumeration, that law is facing opposition that claims it opens the door for “special protections” for LGBT students.
In the past several weeks, Massachusetts, Mississippi and Wisconsin have each enacted non-enumerated anti-bullying laws, even though LGBT advocates had been pushing for enumerated versions. A non-enumerated bill strengthening Georgia’s anti-bullying laws passed that state’s legislature April 29 and awaits Gov. Sonny Perdue’s signature.
New Hampshire is also feeling its way around the issue. The state already has a non-enumerated anti-bullying law. The state Senate passed a bill May 12 (already passed by the House) that would update the law to include “cyber-bullying” – using electronic devices to harass or intimidate other students. The bill notes that “Bullying in schools has historically included actions shown to be motivated by a pupil’s actual or perceived … sexual orientation (or) gender identity and expression.” But the new bill would not require school districts to adopt policies that specifically include protection on the basis of sexual orientation and gender identity.
In contrast, a bill in Illinois that covers bullying specifically targeted at students because of their sexual orientation or gender identity, among other attributes, is now awaiting the signature of Gov. Pat Quinn.
A 2007 survey of students by the Gay, Lesbian, and Straight Education Network found that enumerated policies are more effective than generic ones. In schools where the policies enumerated bullying based on sexual orientation, students were found to be more likely to report harassment problems to staff, and staff were more likely to help.
“For an anti-bullying law to truly protect all students, it must enumerate characteristics of those students most often targeted,” said GLSEN spokesperson Daryl Presgraves. “Naming the problem is crucial to addressing it.”
Elizabeth Fregiato, director of policy and programs for Parents, Families and Friends of Lesbians and Gays National, agrees.
“While we know that the intent of anti-bullying legislation is good,” she said, “the fact is that research has proven that, in states with non-enumerated policies, students are no more protected and schools are no more effective in dealing with this issue than states with no policies at all.” She added that even enumerated laws must be backed with funding for schools to provide anti-bullying training and resources to educators.
But one of the most high-profile national groups pushing for laws and education to address bullying, Bully Police, is also one of the key opponents of enumeration.
Brenda High, founder of Bully Police, told the NY Daily News in March that she believes that state’s legislature has repeatedly failed to pass an anti-bullying law because the bill includes language that gives “special protection” to gay children and those with special needs.
On its website (bullypolice.org), Bully Police explains, “Defining victims will slow the process of lawmaking, dividing political parties who will argue over which victims get special rights over other victims. … All children who are bullied are victimized and they ALL need to be protected.”
High founded the group after she lost her son Jared to a bullying-related suicide in 1998.
Bully Police representatives have been visible in pushing for the anti-bullying laws that have been enacted in several other states, including Arizona, Florida, New Hampshire and Virginia, all of which are non-enumerated. The Florida law, the “Jeffrey Johnston Stand Up for All Students Act,” is named for the son of Bully Police state co-director Debra Johnston.
The battle over enumeration could soon move to the federal level where several bills have been introduced to address the issue. So far, those bills include language to enumerate bullying against LGBT youth.
On May 20, Sen. Al Franken (D-Minn.) introduced a bill that would offer remedies for discrimination “based on actual or perceived sexual orientation or gender identity” in public elementary and secondary schools. The Student Non-Discrimination Act would help to end entrenched biases toward LGBT students.
A similar bill was introduced in the House of Representatives in January by Rep. Jared Polis (D-Colo.) and currently has over 100 co-sponsors.
The American Civil Liberties Union has voiced strong support for these bills and urged swift action by both chambers.
“Our public schools should be a safe harbor for our students, not a place of exclusion and ridicule,” said ACLU Washington Legislative Office Director Laura W. Murphy. “The Student Non-Discrimination Act will go a long way toward protecting our students and will promote both equality in schools and a safer learning environment.”