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Testimony

Anti-bullying bill, MI NOW letter to Representatives, 11-9-11

November 9, 2011

Dear Representative:

As you have noticed from the state and national furor over the Michigan Senate’s adoption of SB 137 with its “pass to harass” clause, the public wants a strong anti-school bullying law in Michigan.  HB 4163 is inadequate to do the job as introduced. 

Last week, the American Association of University Women published Crossing the Line: Sexual Harassment at School. http://www.aauw.org/learn/research/upload/CrossingTheLine.pdfIt presents new evidence on sexual harassment, including cyber-harassment, in middle and high schools. It examines sexual harassment as reported in a nationwide survey of students in grades 7–12 conducted in May and June 2011. The survey confirms that sexual harassment remains an unfortunate part of school culture, affecting the educational experiences of millions of students, especially girls.

Nearly half (48 percent) of the students surveyed experienced some form of sexual harassment in the 2010–11 school year, and the majority of those students (87 percent) said it had a negative effect on them. Verbal harassment (unwelcome sexual comments, jokes, or gestures) made up the bulk of the incidents, but physical harassment was far too common. Sexual harassment by text, e-mail, Facebook, or other electronic means affected nearly one-third (30 percent) of students.  Incidence rates remain high for sexual harassment based on a student’s actual or perceived sexual orientation or gender expression. Boys in the survey particularly reported being negatively affected by this type of sexual harassment.

Still, only a fraction of students who were sexually harassed during the 2010–11 school year reported the incident to a teacher or other adult at school. We recommend that you read this fresh research and its recommendations for effective policies when considering HB 4163.

The following language will make HB 4163 a stronger bill and protect all students in Michigan:

A bullying policy developed under the requirements of this law shall prohibit harassment and bullying and shall include, but not be limited to, harassment and bullying that is motivated either by any actual or perceived characteristic, such as race, color, religion, ancestry, national origin, gender, sexual orientation, gender identity and expression; or a mental, physical, or sensory disability or impairment; or by any other distinguishing characteristic.

The legislature of the State of Oregon recognized that their unenumerated law requiring the development of a bullying policy by schools in Oregon was not effective.  In 2009 the Oregon legislature adopted an amendment to their law to include an enumeration of protected classes.  As stated above, the enumeration clause “…shall include, but not be limited to….” set a minimum standard to protect all students while making sure that the categories that suffer from the most harassment and bullying are included in a school district’s policy. 

Under guidance offered by the Office of Civil Rights of the U.S. Department of Education, federal laws such as the Civil Rights Act, the Americans With Disabilities Act, and Title IX of the Education Amendments of 1972, have been interpreted by our courts to include protection for students who are being bullied because of the characteristics covered by these laws, including race, religion, national origin, mental or physical disability, gender, or sexual orientation and gender identity.  School districts and institutions have been held liable for their failure to implement these protections.  It would be a disservice to Michigan’s school districts not to enumerate the protected categories covered by federal law.

In a recent settlement with the West Branch-Rose City (Michigan) Area Schools, the U.S. Department of Justice directed the district to provide staff training on Title IX, sexual harassment, and anti-gay harassment when a student left school after experiencing systematic anti-gay harassment.  Students are also to receive anti-harassment (including anti-gay harassment) education.  This case speaks to the importance of enumeration and the need for required training of both staff and students.  School districts need to protect all of their students from harassment, not just those acceptable to a local school district administration.

We realize that some religions condemn homosexual activity and thereby seem to condone or promote discrimination against those who are or who appear to be homosexual.  Other religions and secular people may not have the same viewpoint.  We are not suggesting that religions should be barred from using their First Amendment right to advance and promote these viewpoints even though we disagree with them.  It is when the advocacy of such viewpoints turns into harassing or bullying conduct at school or in social media directed at students that problems arise.  Community standards of tolerance and civility towards those who are different than the majority of students need to be taught to children, and rewarded.  Intolerance and incivility need to be discouraged with all the tools available, including discipline of those students who engage in harassment or bullying. 

Residents of the State of Michigan look to their legislators to lead where local school boards may be uninspired to do so by their own prejudices or lack of information on the effects of harassment and bullying.  Further, it seems that the taxpayers’ money could be better used to fund our schools, not our lawyers.

We again urge that you modify HB 4163 to reflect all-inclusive language that would protect all students.

Sincerely,

/s/

Bobbie C. Walton, President
Michigan NOW