Activists criticize Mass. anti-bullying bill

by Peter Cassels

EDGE Media Network Contributor

Monday March 15, 2010

Activists continue to lament the fact Massachusetts legislators have not included LGBT-specific language in a bill that would strengthen a law against bullying and harassment in the classroom.

Activists lobbying to include what they call enumerative language to cover sexual orientation and gender identity and expression attribute the omission to the "Scott Brown effect" and the anti-incumbency mood among voters. Massachusetts voters elected Brown to succeed the late U.S. Sen. Ted Kennedy in January, but activists maintain lawmakers don't want to give conservatives ammunition that would jeopardize their re-election chances in November.

The state Senate unanimously approved the anti-bullying bill on Thursday, March 11. It now moves to the House of Representatives, where it is expected to pass. Governor Deval Patrick, a Democrat running for re-election in what recent polls show is a close race, has said he will sign it into law.

Activists maintain the overwhelmingly Democratic Legislature is leery of giving opponents ammunition by conferring what conservatives call "special rights" for LGBTs.

"You have a toxic environment in both the Senate and the House in view of anti-incumbent, anti-legislative sentiment in the populace at the moment," Dee Dee Edmondson, political director for MassEquality, told EDGE in an interview before the Senate passed the proposed legislation. "Obviously that was shown in the Brown election. People are very nervous."

She explained not including enumerative language is part of a trickle-down effect. While voters are mainly worried about jobs and the rising tax burden in a difficult economy, legislators do not want to take any chances.

"Nothing happens in a vacuum," Edmondson observed.

Several LGBT organizations were part of a 50-member coalition that lobbied for the bill's passage. Besides MassEquality, they included the Massachusetts chapter of the Gay, Lesbian and Straight Education Network; the Massachusetts Gay & Lesbian Political Caucus and the Anti-Violence Project of Massachusetts.

Putting teeth into a 1993 law meant to eliminate bullying and harassment in Massachusetts schools wound up on the front burner after the recent suicides of two students.

Carl Joseph Carl Joseph Walker-Hoover, an 11-year-old from Springfield, hanged himself last April after classmates harassed him because they thought he was gay. And Phoebe Prince, a 15-year-old straight high school student from South Hadley, took her own life in January after female classmates teased her.

The resulting bill would ban bullying at school and on the Internet and it would mandate school officials to notify parents of victims and bullies.

School officials would have to publish an anti-bullying policy and create an anti-bullying curriculum for students. The measure also permits officials to discipline students if they bully peers on the Internet outside school if it affects a victim while in the classroom.

Principals would also have to report bullies to law enforcement if they believe their actions are criminal.

LGBT advocates said they were disappointed the enumeration was not included in the bill.

"Of course, we're happy to see the LGBT issue of people living in harassment taken up, but we think it is a missed opportunity not to have enumeration language," Shawn Gaylord, director of public policy at GLSEN's national headquarters, told EDGE by phone on Thursday, March 11. "All the research shows the importance of enumeration in terms of safety and teachers levels of intervention, so we really do feel it is an essential element of safe-school legislation."

Stanley Griffith, board president of Greater Boston PFLAG, and Danielle Murray, co-chair of GLSEN Massachusetts, echoed Gaylord in a joint statement.

"This policy leaves behind Massachusetts' most at-risk youth," they said. "It is critical to specifically name the problem in this kind of legislation-girls would not have sports and our schools would not be integrated if policymakers had not specifically addressed these inequities by enumerating categories like sex and race in our laws."

The most common form of bullying and harassment in Massachusetts schools is based on actual or perceived sexual orientation, according to the Massachusetts Youth Risk Behavior Survey GLSEN undertook in 2003.

GLSEN maintains a hostile school climate in schools contributes to elevated risks--an increased number of violent attacks against LGBT students and higher rates of suicide attempts and the use of drugs and alcohol.

Activists vowed to push for further protections that would specifically include LGBT provisions.

"There's always time to go back and revisit the statute," Edmondson said. "One thing I do want to stress is that we will always be vigilant in the protection of gay and gay-perceived students and children. That's something we will never waver from."

Forty-one states have enacted laws that address school bullying, but only 16 and the District of Columbia have statutes designed to protect students based on sexual orientation: California, Connecticut, Colorado, Illinois, Iowa, Maine, Maryland, Massachusetts, Minnesota, New Jersey, New York, North Carolina, Oregon, Vermont, Washington and Wisconsin.

California, Colorado, Illinois, Iowa, Maine, Maryland, Minnesota, New Jersey, North Carolina, Oregon, Vermont, Washington and the District of Columbia also have anti-bullying statutes on the books that include gender identity and expression.

Gaylord highlighted Iowa and North Carolina's laws as particularly strong, but he cautioned against comparison.

"But I would hate to compare them and imply other states' laws are inadequate," he said. "They are the ones that we often go back to and look at their language when we look to get laws passed in other states."

Peter Cassels is a recipient of the National Lesbian and Gay Journalists Association's Excellence in Journalism award. His e-mail address is [email protected].

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