Bully bill with no victims awaits Taft's signature
Columbus--One of the final acts of the 126th Ohio General Assembly on December 19 was to pass an anti-bullying bill that critics say is too vague to accomplish anything.
The bill now goes to exiting Gov. Bob Taft�s desk, where he has ten days from passage to sign it.
Passed by the Senate Education Committee on December 12 and approved by the full Senate the next day, the measure does not list any possible victims of school bullying.
LGBT advocates pressed in both houses for the bill to spell out specific categories of students, much like civil rights and anti-discrimination measures do. Most testimony at hearings on the measure favored enumerating these groups, including sexual orientation and gender identity.
If the victim categories aren�t named, they fear, teachers and administrators might assume the measure doesn�t include bullying of gay, lesbian or transgender students.
Opponents of listing victim groups argued that it already covers all students, and putting in the categories would narrow the focus and leave some students out.
The pro-gay side points to another reason why the categories weren�t listed: Anti-gay activists oppose any legislation that includes �sexual orientation� or �gender identity.�
�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, than any mention of sexual orientation or gender identity in the Ohio Revised Code furthers �homosexual interests,� � said Bo Shuff, director of education and public policy for Equality Ohio.
Equality Ohio, whose primary focus is LGBT issues, favors enumeration of victim categories.
The law also goes to the governor without a requirement for school boards to report statistics on harassment incidents to the state.
Fred Pausch, director of legislative services for the Ohio School Board Association, opposed reporting. But his comments illustrated the problems advocates say exist in the law when there is no enumeration.
�Harassment in one school district may not be harassment in another,� he told lawmakers in the Senate Education Committee.
The day after the committee passed the bill, Kaleidoscope Youth Center executive director Angie Wellman was livid.
�What he said was, some populations will be safe in some schools, but not in others,� she said. �Some kids will be safe, and others won�t. It will depend on where you go to school.�
Shuff�s December 12 testimony before the committee expounded on the need for enumeration in the bill.
��Enumerated categories should be included because certain groups of students are fiercely targeted by bullies at school,� Shuff told lawmakers. �Sexual orientation and gender identity and expression are some of those categories. Equality Ohio believes they, like all students, must be protected by this legislation in its final amended form.�
�Seven in ten students frequently hear expressions that are derogatory or worse based on sexual orientation,� he continued, citing �From Teasing to Torment,� a Harris Interactive poll. �Fully one-third of students reported that they are frequently harassed based on real or perceived sexual orientation. When the survey focuses in on self-identified LGBT students, 90 percent of them report being harassed or bullied in the last year.�
�Whether you include enumeration of categories will determine, for Ohio�s students, the success or failure of this legislation meant to protect them,� he said.
An amendment to the bill does list categories, but for reporting academic performance by gender, race, ethnicity, length of time in the district and other groups. It does not mention sexual orientation or gender identity and expression.
Other amendments concern charter schools, the hiring of coaches and annual skills testing.
The bill passed by the House last January, becomes law on December 29 if Taft doesn�t sign or veto it.
Mark Rickel, Taft�s press secretary, said that the governor intends to sign the bill, but did not know when. The measure takes effect 90 days later.
Shuff points out that a new governor next month will bring new appointees in the Department of Education, and a couple of new Ohio Board of Education members.
He noted that work towards naming the categories can be done administratively through the executive branch.
Taft spokesman Rickel acknowledged that passing legislation in steps can be an effective strategy: First pass a toothless anti-bullying law, then later a new one amending it to enumerate categories.
Equality Ohio will be back with another Lobby Day on May 16, during which Shuff wants to bring in students from the districts of every member of the House and Senate Education Committees.