Bullying ban set to become law, but it might not work
Columbus--The Ohio legislature was poised to pass a law against school bullying this week that LGBT advocates and many educators say won�t work because it doesn�t name any possible victims.
The measure passed the Senate Education Committee on December 12, and it was expected to land on Gov. Bob Taft�s desk by week�s end.
The original bill, introduced by State Rep. Jimmy Stewart of Athens, was approved by the Ohio House of Representatives last January 24. The version passed by the Senate committee this week was set to glide through the full chamber, and the House to easily concur.
Attempts were made in both chambers to add victim categories to the bill that would specify, among other things, sexual orientation and gender identity and expression.
If the victim categories aren�t named, backers of the change fear, teachers and administrators might assume the measure doesn�t include bullying of gay, lesbian or transgender students.
LGBT advocates say that opponents of the change are against any law that includes �sexual orientation� or �gender identity� among protected groups.
�We think that the majority that voted to table this issue bought into the argument put forward by the other side, exemplified by anti-gay conservative activist Linda Harvey, that any mention of sexual orientation or gender identity in the Ohio Revised Code furthers �homosexual interests,� � said Bo Shuff.
Shuff, who was present for much of the committee meeting, is the director of education and public policy for Equality Ohio, which wants the categories added.
While there was little testimony against adding them, many people spoke in favor of enumeration, including State Sen. Ray Miller of Columbus, who pointed to civil rights laws that invariably spell out which groups are protected.
Along the course of the bill�s journey through the legislature, opponents of listing victim categories have argued that it already covers all students, and putting in the categories would narrow the focus, leaving some students out.
State Sen. Teresa Fedor of Toledo proposed an amendment to add the enumerated groups. It was defeated 6-3 along party lines, with Republicans against and Democrats for.
GOP Sen. Jeff Jacobson of Dayton joined with the committee�s three Democrats in supporting another Fedor amendment requiring districts to report bullying statistics to the state. This amendment, which also failed, was supported by LGBT advocates.
Fred Pausch, the director of legislative services for the Ohio School Board Association, spoke against the reporting.
�Harassment in one school district may not be harassment in another,� he noted.
�What he said was, some populations will be safe in some schools, but not in others,� said Kaleidoscope Youth Center executive director Angie Wellman after the committee vote. �Some kids will be safe, and others won�t. It will depend on where you go to school.�
The committee approved amendments to remove the summer version of the third-grade reading test, address coaching contracts, give teachers more training about child abuse and report student writing that may indicate suicidal or homicidal thoughts.
�I am sickened today,� said Wellman. �After over an hour of testimony . . . after the mother of a son, dead--another victim of suicide--testified, after a teacher testified, in tears, about one of her students being beaten in school, kicked out of his home, I had a senator tell me that the current verbiage says, �all students,� so what�s the problem?�
�Clearly he hadn�t been listening,� she continued. �Clearly he doesn�t get that queer kids are the victims of homophobes. He doesn�t get that black kids still attend schools where it is okay to let the N-word fly, and Confederate flags on car bumpers are a norm.�
Shuff said that� �The next step is going to be an immediate introduction in January of a piece of legislation that defines bullying and gives guidance to school boards, so bullying in one district looks like bullying in every other school district.�
Equality Ohio supported both enumeration and reporting.
While the November election didn�t change the Ohio legislature as dramatically as Congress, �There�s always a shuffling of seats [on committees] in between each election,� Shuff said. �Not enough to change the make-up, but if we were to get someone like David Goodman onto the Education Committee, it would be a completely different game.�
�I think there�s a very strong change of tone in the capital,� Shuff noted. �Will that translate into passing legislation like this? I�m hopeful.�
The next day, Shuff noted an upside to the committee hearing.
�The one thing that came out of yesterday that is encouraging is, we got a fair hearing,� he said.
Everyone got to speak without any administrative maneuverings to block testimony, he noted, and both State Sens. Eric Fingerhut and Fedor �spoke eloquently� in support of enumeration.
Fedor won reelection in November, and will be the minority leader, so Shuff is hopeful that she can give guidance in furthering an LGBT-friendly legislative agenda. He also believes that lawmakers will benefit from guidance by the executive branch, which saw a strong shake-up in the general election.
The most impressive weapon in Equality Ohio�s arsenal, however, is the Lobby Day, and the group�s second annual outing will be on May 16. The inaugural day last spring is believed to be the largest citizen lobbying action in state history.
�Once we know the names of the Senate and House Education Committee members, my personal goal is to make sure we have students from each of those legislators� districts attending for lobby day,� Shuff concluded.