Wednesday, Jun 20, 2018
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No free pass for bullies

The recent beating of a 15-year-old gay student by a high school classmate in southern Ohio suggests that the state law against school bullying does not go far enough to protect some students.

But Ohio is still light years ahead of Michigan, where the state Senate has added an onerous provision to a proposed anti-bullying bill. It would allow an exception for statements of "sincerely held belief or moral conviction."

Ohio requires school districts to institute general anti-bullying policies. Toledo Public Schools has a comprehensive policy, but like many other districts, it doesn't list groups that the policy protects. Research suggests that declaring gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transsexual students as specifically protected makes them less likely to be bullied.

Some districts prohibit cyber-bullying over the Internet, typically on social-network sites such as Facebook and Twitter. But a recent Blade story about cyber-bullying at Anthony Wayne Junior High School points out that it's hard for schools to punish students for what they do off campus and outside school hours.

In Michigan, discussions about identifying specific protected groups and controlling cyber-bullying aren't even on the radar. Senate Republicans rejected Democrats' efforts to name protected groups in a bill addressing harassment and intimidation in public schools.

In the guise of protecting free speech, senators watered down the bill to allow religious or moral bullying by students, teachers, and other school employees. Call it the Westboro exemption: That's the Kansas congregation that abuses free speech in protests at military funerals, where its members spew anti-gay bile.

Free speech is not endangered by prohibitions against bullying. But victims are in greater danger when bullies can spread hatred and intolerance, then hide behind the First Amendment.

Michigan is one of just three states, along with Montana and South Dakota, that lacks anti-bullying legislation. The Michigan Senate's farcical bill, while it provides cover for religious bullies, doesn't hold school administrators accountable if they don't act to stop bullying, doesn't require incidents to be reported, and includes no provisions for anti-bullying training or enforcement.

The Senate bill is named for Matt Epling, a 14-year-old high school student who committed suicide in 2002 after he was bullied by older students. His memory is dishonored by a bill that does little more than protect a class of bullies.

Fortunately, the Michigan House has passed a much better anti-bullying bill. The bipartisan House version discards the Westboro exemption and addresses concerns about accountability, reporting, training, and enforcement.

There is no need to compromise between the good bill and the bad one. The Senate should quickly adopt the better House version, so that Michigan can join the overwhelming majority of states that have taken a stand against bullying.

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