Two very different anti-bullying bills in the legislature

Nov 11, 2011

Governor Snyder has to be hoping that the State Senate goes along with the changes the State House of Representatives made to the anti-bullying legislation now before the legislature.

Otherwise, the Michigan Senate will continue to be the object of nationwide scorn, and the governor may have to veto the bill. If you haven’t been following this, there has been steady pressure building for years for Lansing to pass an anti-bullying bill.

There have been a rash of stories about kids who were so tormented in school they took their own lives.

One of those kids was an East Lansing eighth-grader named Matt Epling, who had eggs smashed on his head, syrup poured in his hair and was beaten up as part of a “welcome to high school” hazing.

Humiliations, like most other emotions, often seem far more intense when you are young. Six weeks later, before high school started, Matt killed himself. The police did nothing till after his death.

Children can be very cruel, as anybody knows who has either read Lord of the Flies or lived through high school, especially if you are in any way “different.” The problem has gotten even worse since Matt‘s death. That‘s not because of any change in human nature, but because of the rise of social media, and ever-present texting devices.

Some school districts had anti-bullying policies; others did not, and there was a demand for statewide anti-bullying legislation.

Most states already had such a law. Last week, the Michigan Senate passed one -- but many people felt it was even worse than no law at all. Democrats felt that the law ought to mention specific groups who are most at risk of being bullied, including gay students.

Republicans not only refused, at the last minute, they added these explosive words: "This section does not prohibit a statement of a sincerely held religious belief or moral conviction of a school employee, school volunteer, pupil, or a pupil's parent or guardian."

They said that was meant to protect “First Amendment rights,” but a lot of people knew better. Some right-wing groups are hostile to any protection for gay students, because they feel that homosexuality is against God’s law.

Inserting that language was seen by some as a “right to bully.” It passed the senate on a party-line vote, but then trouble blew up. National TV networks did stories on the Michigan vote, and we did not look good. The Lansing State Journal’s lead editorial said the bill was a national embarrassment, and that “under no circumstances,” should the governor sign it.

Senate Minority Leader Gretchen Whitmer, a potential Democratic candidate for statewide office, started getting national exposure denouncing the bill. Yesterday, in an attempt to defuse the crisis, a new anti-bullying bill without the offensive language overwhelmingly passed the house, and now goes back to the senate.

What may be saddest of all, however, is that this bill in either form really doesn’t do much to protect kids. There is no requirement that bullying be reported, or prescribed penalties.

But at least it is a statewide policy, and a start. The next step for any parents should be to find out what your local school district’s anti-bullying policy is -- and then press them to do better.