Since state Sen. Rick Jones (R-Grand Ledge) was elected in 2004, he has supported an anti-bullying law that would have protected bullying victims like his son and the granddaughter of one of his former colleagues. Until this week, his efforts had received little response from the state government.
On Tuesday, the state Senate passed Matt’s Safe School Law, a bill that will require all school districts in Michigan to implement anti-bullying policies. The bill is waiting Republican Gov. Rick Snyder’s signature and state lawmakers, and spokespeople for the governor say they expect him to sign it within the next week.
The bill’s passing ended weeks of wrangling between Democrats and Republicans regarding the measures included in the bill. Republicans, who voted 88-18 in the House and 35-2 in the Senate, favored taking out of the law enumerations — listings of characteristics like gender, religion and sexual orientation for which students cannot be bullied — and reporting requirements to the state.
Ari Adler, press secretary for Speaker of the House Jase Bolger (R–Marshall), said he preferred that enumerations not be part of the law because they may encourage more opportunities for bullying.
“As soon as you make a list of reasons why someone should not be bullied, you open the door to coming up with reasons why bullying should be OK,” Adler said. “Whereas if you leave it general, and you say bullying is wrong for everyone — doesn’t matter what the reason is or who’s doing or why they’re doing it — we felt that provided more protection for everyone.”
In an interview two weeks ago, state Sen. Rebekah Warren (D–Ann Arbor) called the Republicans’ view of enumerations a “false argument” because they have traditionally been hedged by the language, “including, but not limited to.” She criticized an earlier bill Jones introduced on Feb. 10 for excluding enumerations and requirements for schools to report their progress to the state.
Warren and other state legislators vehemently denounced Jones’s Senate bill, passed in the chamber Nov. 2, for a clause that prohibited schools from punishing “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” as bullying.
In an interview on Nov. 8, Jones said he was open to removing the clause, which a caucus attorney added at the last minute for the sake of compromise. The House rejected Jones’s Senate bill and began working on a replacement on Nov. 9 that would resolve differences of opinion between Democrats and Republicans, Adler said.
The House passed the rewritten bill excluding the enumerations Nov. 10, just before the two-week legislative recess that ended Monday. The bill passed in the Senate Tuesday without amendments.
On Wednesday, Adler and Jones praised the bill for finding compromise between Democratic and Republican viewpoints and ending more than a decade of struggle over the legislation. Jones said it was important to pass the bill so students understand their schools must now implement policies to shield them from bullying.
“That was my goal — to make sure that we give a Christmas present to the children of Michigan and pass a bill that ensures that their school will have a policy,” he said.
Unlike Adler and other state Republicans, Jones said he was not opposed to enumerations or provisions that would have required school districts to submit reports to the state. However, including the measures in the bill could have made it politically unviable.
“The process has already stalled at least five years,” Jones said. “In the meantime, we’ve had students commit suicide who were bullied, and we’ve had students leave school who were bullied. It’s our job to compromise and get a policy in place.”
The chance to pass any anti-bullying legislation after 10 years of political impasse even convinced some critics, like state Rep. Jeff Irwin (D–Ann Arbor), to vote for a bill they said would be ineffective. Though he voted for the bill, Irwin called it “vastly weaker” than he would have liked because the absence of enumerations will deprive schools of the tools they need to prevent bullying.
“It’s a baby step, and I’m not going to vote against a baby step, but I’m a little bit frustrated that we didn’t take the step that we should have taken and the public was calling for,” Irwin said. “They really failed at what the whole effort was trying to do in the first place.”
Irwin predicted that the bill will not affect school districts, whether they already have strong anti-bullying policies in place or not.
“The school districts that are serious about addressing bullying will continue to be serious about addressing bullying, and the school districts that are not serious about addressing bullying will, because of this new law, be able to easily check off a box that they made a policy, and they’ll continue to not give it the attention it deserves,” Irwin said.
The Ann Arbor public school system has an anti-bullying policy that outlines the definitions of bullying and harassment and the punishments for those actions, Ann Arbor Public Schools Superintendent Patricia Green said in an interview last month. The policy includes enumerations such as race, color, nationality, sexual orientation, gender identity and “any other distinguishing characteristics.”
Liz Margolis, spokeswoman for the district, said she believes the policy effectively shields students from all forms of bullying.
“I think we need to have some kind of a list to start out, but it also allows us to have an opening in case other things come up,” Margolis said.
If the bill becomes law, she added, the district will examine its policy in a few months to ensure it is up to state standards. Margolis predicted the law would not significantly affect the district’s policy because it is already so inclusive.
“It’s nice to see that the state has come through and supported an anti-bullying policy for schools,” Margolis said. “We have felt the need for that for a long time.”