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Michigan GOP-led Senate passes bill that many think will encourage bullying

Advocates for a law to prohibit bullying and provide school districts with the tools to address the problem were dealt a stinging rebuke Wednesday morning in the Republican-controlled Michigan Senate.

The GOP pushed through an amended bill, SB 137, which does nothing advocates have pushed for — including reporting requirements and enumeration, or listing, of protected classes. In addition, the legislation provides an exception which allows bullying based on “moral convictions.”

The full language of the insert is: “This section does not prohibit a statement of a sincerely held religious belief or moral conviction of a school employee, school volunteer, pupil, or a pupil and parent or guardian.”

In a floor speech Minority Leader in the Senate Gretchen Whitmer (D-East Lansing) slammed the Republicans over the amended language.

“Here today you claim to be protecting kids and you’re actually putting them in more danger,” Whitmer said. “But bullying is not OK. We should be protecting public policy that protects kids — all kids, from bullies — all bullies. But instead you have set us back further by creating a blueprint for bullying.”

“Shockingly, Senate Bill 137 will do more harm than good. Senate Republicans left our students behind in favor of partisan politics and passed a bill that actually allows more bullying. Students and parents expect lawmakers to lead the charge against bullying, but instead Republicans made ideology more important than school safety,” said Emily Dievendorf, policy director of Equality Michigan. “Research clearly shows that only states with enumerated bills see a reduction in bullying. We need a bill that mentions the most affected populations and requires statewide reporting of bullying and harassment. SB 137 simply does nothing to reduce bullying in our schools.”

Democratic senators also assailed the legislation.

“The language in this legislation is disrespectful to the memory of the children who have committed suicide in this state due to bullying. Republicans clearly are not taking the bullying epidemic seriously,” said Senator John Gleason (D-Flushing). “The bill that was presented to us today offers no protections to our students and perpetuates a hostile environment in our schools.”

Gleason made headlines last month after Democratic senators attempted to attach anti-bullying legislation to a bill to lift the cap on the number of charter schools in the state. The GOP rejected both a fully enumerated bill with reporting requirements, and their own version of the bill. In response, Gleason staged a sit-in at the Capitol to protest the move.

“To the families of the ten reported suicides that were directly linked to bullying and the countless others that have gone unreported, this bill adds insult to injury,” said Senator Glenn Anderson (D-Westland). “I have been working for years to pass legislation to provide a safe school environment for all of our students. This bill goes in the exact opposite direction and in fact provides a license to bully.”

The legislation passed 26-11. It now moves to the Republican-controlled House.

Sara Wurfel, spokesperson for Gov. Rick Snyder, would not specifically address the question of the moral conviction exemption, instead issuing the following statement:

The Governor is looking forward to working with the Legislature to get strong anti-bullying legislation to his desk and provide a safe environment for all students. The Governor believes bullying at any time, under any circumstances, is wrong. Period. It has no place in classrooms, schools or communities. It’s time for Michigan to join all the other states with tough laws on the books.

“We’re pleased that the senate has passed an anti-bullying bill that will equally protect all children from all bullying for all reasons, based on their individual worth as human beings, not on being segregated into singled-out groups for special protection,” said Gary Glenn, president of the American Family Association of Michigan. AFA Michigan has been a leading voice opposing enumerated legislation for over a decade, often referring to the legislation as “a Trojan horse for the homosexual agenda.”

“I am ashamed that this could be Michigan’s bill on anti-bullying, when in fact it is a ‘bullying is OK in MI’ law,” said Kevin Epling, an East Lansing parent whose son committed suicide as a result of bullying. His comment was posted on his Facebook page.

In an interview he had more to say.

“For years the line has been ‘no protected classes,’ and the first thing they throw in — very secretly — was a very protected class, and limited them from repercussions of their own actions. This line has no purpose within this piece of legislation except to incite ‘religious bigotry’ within our schools. Schools are trying to build more tolerant students and future leaders, not automatons blindly following misguided adult leaders who seek a return to a 1950′s America,” Epling said. “This will only cause unrest in schools and give schools one more thing to deal with rather than trying to solve a problem. Also it is not a very well thought out ploy, as in some areas of the state the tables might be turned on the ‘anointed ones’ they seek to keep from being punished. This is just very wrong and the way it was done was wrong as well. It was bullying at its best.”

But Glenn says that the new legislation does not allow bullying based on religious beliefs or values.

“It does no such thing,” Glenn said in response to a series of email questions from Michigan Messenger. “The religious free speech protections included in the bill, consistent with the First Amendment, simply ensure that students won’t be bullied or punished — as occurred last year at a high school in Howell — for daring to say they believe a certain behavior is wrong as a matter of sincerely held religious or moral conviction. The First Amendment and other free speech protections do just that, protect free speech, not bullying. And students, like all other Americans, are free to verbally express their opinions — including religious and moral views — without fear of government repression or persecution, including under anti-bullying or harrassment laws.”

Sen. Whitmer answered Glenn’s claims in her floor speech.

“You may be able to pat yourselves on the back today and say that you did something, but in actuality you are explicitly outlining how to get away with bullying,” she said. “Your exceptions have swallowed the rule. As passed today, bullying kids is OK if a student, parent, teacher or school employee can come up with a moral or religious reason for doing it.”

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