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Thursday, November 10,2011

Brushfire over bullying

Michigan lawmakers take heat for religious ‘blueprint for bullying,’ go back to drawing board

by Lawrence Cosentino

After years of urging Michigan’s
legislature to pass a comprehensive law cracking down on bullying in
the state’s schools, Senate Democratic Leader Gretchen Whitmer
reconciled herself to the idea that something would be better than
nothing — until last week.


When the state’s Republican-controlled
Senate passed an anti-bullying bill Wednesday with a caveat exempting a
“statement of a sincerely held religious belief or moral conviction,” a
tsunami of Michigan mockery broke out in broadcast media and on the
Internet.


“Your exceptions have swallowed the
rule,” Whitmer declared in an emotional speech on the Senate floor
Wednesday, calling the provision “a blueprint for bullying.”  


State Superintendent of Schools Mike
Flanagan called the bill a “joke.” National media, including The
Washington Post and ABC News, picked up the story. Time Magazine’s Amy
Sullivan sarcastically praised the Senate’s “impressive feat … an
anti-bullying bill that manages to protect school bullies instead of
those they victimize.”


“You may be able to pat yourselves on
the backs today and say you did something, but in actuality you’re
explicitly outlining how to get away with bullying,” Whitmer said. 


By Tuesday, half a million viewers had
seen Whitmer’s Senate speech via YouTube and Republican legislators
were backing away from language they had unanimously passed days before.


Even without the religious exemption,
the bill lacked provisions Whitmer and other supporters of
anti-bullying legislation wanted, including enumeration of groups often
targeted for bullying, required reporting of incidents at the state
level, and stronger cyber-bullying measures.


Still, Whitmer was prepared to hold her nose and vote for it.


“We knew that Sen. [Rick] Jones had a
watered-down bill, but we were going to support it, because we figured
that something on the books is better than nothing, especially in the
partisan climate here in Lansing,” Whitmer told City Pulse. “When they
came out of caucus and ran the bill in this form, we were surprised and
disgusted.”


Her office was swamped with thousands of
e-mails last week. “People are disgusted,” she said. Whitmer was
scheduled to appear on CNN’s “Anderson Cooper 360” Tuesday night.


She is glad the issue has gotten such
widespread attention, but has mixed feelings about it. “After all these
years of pushing this issue, it’s sad that we’ve gotten attention for
this reason,” she said. “This is a greater statement about our state
and the stranglehold the religious right seems to have on the
Legislature.”


Whitmer called it “the saddest and
sickest irony of all” that the bill was named “Matt’s Safe School Law,”
after Matt Epling, a 14-year-old East Lansing student who committed
suicide in 2002 after being repeatedly bullied in school.


Matt’s father, Kevin, has pushed legislators for an anti-bullying law since his son’s death.


Until last week, Epling also thought
something would be better than nothing. But in a letter read on the
Senate floor Wednesday, he savaged the bill bearing his son’s name,
calling the religious exemption “the most absurd input I have seen in
the almost seven years dealing with this issue.”


Epling hopes last week’s firestorm will
give lawmakers a chance, not only to take out the religious exemption,
but to take a more comprehensive look at the bill.


Tuesday, Epling met with House Speaker
Jase Bolger and Democratic Leader Richard Hammel at the state Capitol.
Epling said Bolger is ready to get rid of the religious exemption in
the House version of the bill, but he didn’t commit to making that
change or any other.


Through spokesman Ari Adler, Bolger has
told several media outlets he is ready to drop the religious exemption
but that he does not support legislation that would enumerate specific
groups for protection.


Whitmer said she will “keep pushing” for a more comprehensive bill as it moves to the House.


“I’m calling on Speaker Bolger to not
only fix their mistake, but bring Michigan up to date with what other
states are already doing in passing comprehensive anti-bullying
legislation,” Whitmer said in a news release. Michigan is one of three
states without an anti-bullying law.


But Whitmer told City Pulse she didn’t know what would happen in the House.


“I cannot predict it, but I know that
caucus is as right-leaning as the Senate Republicans,” she said. “Maybe
they’ll see their Senate colleagues went too far and they’ll actually
pass something that’s meaningful.”


At Tuesday’s meeting with Bolger, Epling
pushed for required reporting at the state level and “a close look at
cyber-bullying,” but said that enumeration of frequently targeted
groups will be more elusive. 


That troubles Emily Dievendorf, policy
director at the statewide gay rights organization Equality Michigan,
who thinks that taking out the religious exemption would only take the
Senate bill from “destructive” to “ineffective.”


“Studies have shown that without listing
protected categories, administrators are unlikely to recognize
bullying, be confident they’re seeing it when it happens, report it and
follow up,” Dievendorf said.


In April 2011, Arkansas became the 11th
state to pass an anti-bullying bill listing protected categories,
including race, religion, sexual orientation and gender identity.


“So there are other states that are not
afraid of the conservative extreme right,” Dievendorf said. Of the 47
states with bullying laws, 14 have enumerated bills.


Ten years ago, Oregon passed a bill that
did not list protected categories. Subsequent studies showed that
groups most likely to be bullied before the bill passed, including
African-American and Native American students, were still being bullied
there. In July, the state passed a revised law enumerating protected
classes.


“We have the data, the case studies,”
Dievendorf said. “We know how to make a really great bill the first
time. I don’t want taking out the offensive religious exemption
language to take attention from the fact that we still need a quality
bill.”

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