Anti-bullying bill advances without naming victim classes
Columbus--An anti-bullying bill that makes no mention of who it protects passed the House of Representatives Education Committee on January 10, against the wishes of LGBT youth advocates.
The bill requires schools to adopt anti-harassment and anti-bullying policies, and for the state auditor to report on violations of those measures each year. Critics say that the policies will be toothless unless the bill makes them name groups that are often victims of bullying, including LGBT students.
The committee voted 18-2 in favor of the bill. Of the eight Democrats on the committee, Rep. Dixie Allen of Dayton was absent, and the other seven all voted in favor of it. Of the 14 Republicans, 11 voted in favor.
Rep. Jeff Wagner of Sycamore opposed the measure, calling it an �unfunded mandate,� while committee vice-chair Rep. Diana M. Fessler of New Carlisle said that it handed too much power over implementation to the executive branch.
LGBT advocates point to a Harris Interactive study released by the Gay, Lesbian and Straight Education Network showing that anti-bullying and harassment policies that do not include specific categories, like race, sexual orientation, national origin, gender identity and others, are ineffective, and that districts with non-specific policies may have greater problems with harassment than those with enumerated categories.
The bill, introduced by Athens Republican Rep. Jimmy Stewart, was held in committee after testimony on October 11. A sub-bill, also penned by Stewart, still did not name specific groups, despite intense lobbying from Ohio chapters of GLSEN and other activists.
No opposition to categories
Throughout committee testimony, there were no speakers who specifically opposed enumerating categories of students, although some lawmakers worried that �if you get specific, there�s always a possibility of leaving a group out,� Stewart commented shortly after introducing the bill.
At the January 10 hearing, two speakers called for adding specific groups to the bill. Eric Resnick, a former substitute teacher in the Canton school district and current staff reporter for the Gay People�s Chronicle, and high school senior Kathleen Adams of Shaker Heights both testified that, without the categories named, lawmakers should reject the bill.
Adams, an African American student in a predominantly white part of her Cleveland suburb, is subjected to harassment and violence both because of disability, namely dyslexia and attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, and because of her race.
While quoting the GLSEN report �From Teasing to Torment: A Report on School Climate in Ohio,� she also recounted being attacked for the color of her skin.
�I was punched in the skull when a girl told me that I needed to stay on the other side of town where the black people were,� she noted. �Nightly, I would receive phone calls where she would make racial comments, or I would awake in the morning and find my house egged or toilet papered, due to her ignorance and lack of respect for me and my family.�
�On October 11 you did the right thing when you decided to do more work on this,� Resnick told legislators. �We offered you the state-of-the-art definition of �bullying� which, because it enumerates who and what it covers, has been proven to be effective protecting all students.�
�It would be nice, and a lot easier to remember if there was just one commandment--�Thou shalt be nice to one another�--covering everything,� he continued. �But human nature doesn�t work that way, and more specificity is needed. Sometimes things need spelled out, and this is one of those times.�
Two other speakers supported passage of the bill as it stands, not out of opposition to listing categories but because there is currently no state law mandating anti-bullying policies.
�There has been absolutely no opposition to inclusion of enumerated categories other than the committee has simply chosen not to do it,� said Equality Ohio Executive Director Lynne Bowman. �There has been no public outcry against it, which makes it even more disgusting that they�re moving this bill forward without categories.�
Policies can still be changed
The bill now goes to the Rules and Reference Committee.
�My guess is, as long as there�s no language problems with the bill as far as the Rules Committee is concerned, it will move through, especially since it seems that the leadership of the House is pushing this through without enumeration,� said Bowman, whose group launched a phone-in campaign to members of the Education Committee to try to get the desired changes made to the bill.
While she finds it depressing that the committee ignored the testimony in favor of enumerating categories in the bill, she is optimistic because, she says, there is �a lot of opportunity with the full House, the Senate, the state board of education and local boards.�
She is also pleased that lawmakers were hearing the �same message from around the state,� illustrating that the LGBT community in Ohio is no longer a passive body.
Bowman noted that, since the Ohio Board of Education would be required to come up with a model policy for districts, advocates for LGBT youth could lobby there for a policy that does list categories.
Angie Wellman, executive director of the Kaleidoscope Youth Coalition in Columbus, was dismayed at the committee�s vote.
�Protections for specific populations are spelled out all the time--age, race, ability, etc,� she said. �For House Bill 276 [the anti-bully bill] not to include enumerated categories including sexual orientation and gender identity is essentially leaving the protections for students up to the individual interpretation of school administrators.�
She continued, �In Columbus Public Schools, sexual orientation is included in the anti-harassment policy, but not the non-discrimination policy. Most other school districts don�t even include sexual orientation in the anti-harassment policy.�
�Most of the youth we see at the center are being bullied because they don�t fit gender norms. A greater number of them deal with issues surrounding low self-esteem and poor academic achievement,� she noted. �When young people are worried about watching their backs, it�s hard to concentrate on what the teacher is saying.�
Rep. Brian G. Williams, a Democrat on the Education Committee and former superintendent of the Akron Public Schools, pointed out that it would be difficult to get an amendment on the bill in committee when the majority party did not want it. He does not, however, believe that LGBT students will be left behind because of the bill as it was passed.
�My view is that, on a bill of this nature, all children are protected,� he opined. �Having said that, I don�t think the enumeration would have survived in that committee. You can accomplish a lot more in the majority party.�
Even if the bill is enacted as it stands, Williams noted, it�s not the end of the story.
He said that, in his experience as a legislator, �more bills get amendment than new bills get introduced.�
�I think this bill does a lot of good. It results in a policy in 612 school boards, and that�s a plus,� Williams noted. �I�m hopeful that school boards will extend the terms as needed in their communities.�
�The concept of this bill is already ingrained in several policies already in place in Akron,� said the former head of the district, who was honored by the United Negro College Fund, the NAACP and the Ohio PTA during his tenure as superintendent.