State Rep. Rick Jones (R–Grand Ledge) is familiar with the troubles of bullied youth.
His son, he said, was “pushed around” and tormented by bullies during his middle and high school years, and the granddaughter of one of his close former colleagues committed suicide after being bullied throughout high school.
Jones said those experiences inspired him to sponsor an anti-bullying bill, which has raised controversy after a state caucus attorney added a provision to the bill prohibiting schools from giving punishments as a result of bullying in the form of “a statement of a sincerely held religious belief or moral conviction of a school employee, school volunteer, pupil or a pupil’s parent or guardian.”
The clause, some legislators say, condones and even authorizes bullying and offers legal protection from accountability to bullies. Despite the opposition, the bill passed in the state Senate last week along party lines, with 26 Republicans voting in favor and 11 Democrats voting against it. The bill now awaits approval by the state House of Representatives.
The legislation, also known as “Matt’s Safe Schools Act,” was developed in honor of Matt Epling, a middle school student from East Lansing who committed suicide in 2002. In response to the outcry about the clause, the state House is currently rewriting the bill, pledging to redact the clause from the bill. Once it is rewritten, it will return to the Senate to bridge consensus among the viewpoints.
According to Ari Adler, press secretary for Speaker of the House Jase Bolger (R–Marshall), House Republicans and Democrats have been collaborating to produce legislation that respects students’ First Amendment rights and marks bullying as unacceptable under any circumstances.
“We want to have a very general anti-bullying law that essentially says, ‘Bullying is wrong, and no one should be bullied,’” Adler said. “It doesn’t matter what reason you think you’re doing it for, and it doesn’t matter who you are.”
Though Adler said most Republicans and Democrats in both chambers of the Legislature agree on that principle, negotiations in the House have been challenging because the Senate bill was killed and the contested clause is expected to be removed.
“You have a situation here where you are dealing with differences of opinion in regards to the philosophy of whether there should be a bullying law or not, and then you wrap into that the fact that it is a very emotional issue for many people,” Adler said.
The starkest difference of opinion is on whether the law should or should not include a specific list of characteristics for which bullying can be punished, Adler said. He added that he and Bolger believe such enumerations would only compound the intricacies of bullying policies, and Adler expects a list of specific acts will not be included in the bill.
“As soon as you start making a list of reasons that you cannot bully someone, you’re automatically opening the door to a list of reasons why you could bully someone,” he said. “As soon as you create a list of inclusions, you create a list of exclusions at the same time.”
Still, some lawmakers believe excluding the enumerations would weaken the bill’s ability to curb bullying in school. One proponent, Rep. Jeff Irwin (D–Ann Arbor), said enumerations would protect bullied youth from gaps or lack of specificity in the policies. Irwin accused state Republicans in the State House and Senate of being unwilling to shield youth like LGBT students, from harassment.
“(The Senate bill) flies in the face of what bullying is all about,” Irwin said. “Bullying is about identifying differences and picking on them. The Senate bill says if you can draw some sort of religious connection to your discrimination, then it’s OK. That’s not going to help the situation.”
State Sen. Rebekah Warren (D–Ann Arbor) called Republicans’ attempt to frame the enumerations issue as one that would fail to shield some students from harassment a “false argument.” Because the qualification “including, but not limited to” precedes enumerations in law, they would encompass all characteristics for which students might be bullied, Warren said.
“If we make it incredibly explicit that we mean every child regardless of which of these characteristics they exhibit or possess, then we’ll have the widest protections possible,” she said.
Though the Senate bill marks the most significant anti-bullying legislation in the years that Warren and other lawmakers have been pushing the issue, Warren said she might not have supported it even had the caucus attorney not introduced the exclusion provision at the last minute. She criticized the bill’s lack of inclusion of mechanisms for schools to report their bullying statistics to the state and providing information legislators would then use to adjust policy.
“It’s such a disappointment that we would pass a bill that’s so obviously flawed when we’re finally taking a look at it,” she said. “This really is our opportunity to get something positive and protective on the books so that our kids can go to school, can learn and can get a good education without the fear of what might be waiting for them from bullies in the classroom.”
Jones accused state Democrats of playing the bill for political purposes. Neither the clause nor the legislation as a whole was intended to excuse bullying or offer bullies a refuge from liability, he said.
“Nothing in this bill says that a student can go up to another student and verbally assault them,” he said. “I don’t think that was the intent at all, and I think the meaning has been twisted by the other side of the aisle for political purposes.”
Jones urged Democratic lawmakers to end their political wrangling and remember the reason he introduced the legislation in the Senate — to mandate anti-bullying policies and curb bullying in schools across the state.
“It’s time to stop politics and start worrying about how we can have appropriate policies in our schools to protect our children,” Jones said.
The bill has also drawn disapproval from school district superintendents statewide. Superintendents have said they worry the exception clause will disarm their abilities to discipline bullies.
Patricia Green, superintendent of Ann Arbor Public Schools, sent a letter to the district’s faculty and staff encouraging them to write to Republican Gov. Rick Snyder and state representatives about the Senate bill. Green wrote in the letter that she found the exclusion clause “disturbing and potentially dangerous.”
In an interview, Green said parents wrote to her expressing their gratitude that she alerted them to the addition of the clause. She said many parents wrote to legislators expressing their disapproval, stating that the bill did not fully attack bullying.
“It can create potentially dangerous situations for students to be able to potentially justify when bullying is allowable,” she said. “We’re saying, ‘Don’t bully, don’t intimidate, don’t harass,’ and then you have a situation where all these exceptions are allowable and open in some ways for interpretation.”
When informed that Adler expected the clause would be excluded from the House’s bill, Green said she was “glad to hear it.”
Ann Arbor Public Schools already have an anti-bullying policy, though Jones said Michigan is one of three states where such policies are not state mandated in public schools. According to Green, the district’s policy clearly defines bullying and harassment and outlines measures district administrators can use to prevent and punish bullying. But Green said the state bill, if enacted, could be a boon to the district’s efforts to limit bullying.
“It means that people are going to pay much more attention to that kind of behavior,” she said. “Anything that strengthens the effort to eliminate bullying is significant, and I just want to make sure that we’re not waffling on the issue that kids shouldn’t be bullied.”