Senate panel endorses one anti-bullying bill, rejects another
Gov. Bobby Jindal and social conservatives who don’t want the law to list characteristics, including sexual orientation, that warrant protection against mistreatment.
Sen. Rick Ward III, D-Maringouin, won a unanimous vote for a proposal that would require all public school governing boards to develop anti-bullying policies and redefine the state’s existing description of bullying. The bill, a substitute for Ward’s original Senate Bill 709, defines bullying as “any pattern” of several behaviors. Among them: obscene gestures or making faces; written, electronic or verbal name-calling, threatening harm, taunting, malicious teasing or spreading untrue rumors; certain physical acts; “repeatedly and purposefully shunning or excluding from activities.”
The measure further suggests that, to be bullying, the behavior also must meet other benchmarks, though the language does not explicitly state that all circumstances must be triggered. Among them, the acts would be “exhibited toward another student more than once;” result in “physically harm” to subject, damage his or her property, place the student “in reasonable fear of damage to … property;” “create an intimidating or threatening educational environment;” “substantially interfere with a student’s performance (or) disrupt the orderly operation of the school.”
Ward also highlighted provisions that detail how school authorities should respond to allegations of bullying, including involving parents of both the recipient and alleged perpetrator. And he noted a requirement for training school employees about how to recognize and handle bullying. Parents also would be allowed to transfer a child after making four or more reports of bullying if “no investigation” occurs as outlined in the bill.
In a provision sought by the Louisiana Family Forum, a conservative Christian organization, “nothing in (the bill) is intended to infringe upon the right of a school employee or student to exercise their right of free speech.”
Earlier in the legislative session, Family Forum leader Gene Mills criticized a house bill that enumerated characteristics that might be the object of bullying, saying it would “introduce sexual politics into the classroom” and threaten religious expression. “You could make a criminal bully out of a child who holds an orthodox view of Christianity.”
Mills told senators Thursday that Ward’s bill protects all children. “Responsible adults would not only be empowered but would be required to relieve that torment,” Mills said.
The original version of Ward’s measure, which he scrapped in favor of the substitute, included considerable emphasis on the First Amendment rights of students. Ward said he rolled back that language amid concerns that it would become “a license to bully,” leaving principals and teachers unable to enforce anti-bullying policies. Mills said, “No one will hide behind a free speech claim” under the revised version.
The second bullying bill, sponsored by Sen. Yvonne Dorsey-Colomb, D-Baton Rouge, included the list of characteristics, which is sought in particular by civil rights and gay rights advocates. Ward, whose district includes Pointe Coupee Parish Central High School, where 17-year old Tesa Middlebrook committed suicide in May, initially was a co-sponsor of Dorsey’s bill. He said after the hearing that he pursued his own bill because he didn’t want a law that “picks winners and losers.” He said the law should “deal with the action” rather than attempt to address causes.
Dorsey-Colomb said the list, which she described as illustrative rather than limiting, is needed to give school officials guidance about what might constitute bullying. As it stands, she said, the state already has a general bullying law that hasn’t stopped the problem.
She peppered her colleagues with statistics about certain classes of students who are more likely to be bullied because of certain characteristics, from learning capabilities or sexual orientation to religion and gender. Sen. Mike Walsworth, R-West Monroe, told her at one point: “I agree with those statistics, but what I hear at home from parents is just that they want the bullying stopped, all of it. It is because kids are being kids and they are bullying each other. It’s not because of these characteristics.”
Only Sen. Dan Claitor, R-Baton Rouge, voted in favor of Dorsey’s bill, saying the Senate should hear both measures.
Bill Barrow can be reached at email@example.com or 504.826.3452.