Forecaster Forum: Bullying bill is necessary and fair

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Bullying in schools is a serious problem. It affects a student’s ability to learn, and can create a hostile and frightening environment for the victims of bullying. It’s hard to understand why anyone would oppose legislation that protects our students from bullying.

Yet, House Republicans in Augusta did, all at the behest of the Christian Civic League.

They were critical of the bill because it was drafted by a lawyer for a gay rights organization. In a last-minute action alert prior to the final vote on the bill, they told GOP House members the bill promoted the ideology of the Gay and Lesbian Advocators and Defenders, instead of protecting students from bullying.

That’s just not true. The league and Republican House leaders opposing the measure have completely misrepresented the bill.

The text of the bill is simple and straightforward. It requires school districts to have an anti-bullying policy and a response plan to bullying of any student.

According to the bill, harassment, intimidation or bullying means any intentional electronic, written, verbal or physical act that disparages or ridicules a race, skin color, religion, ancestry, national origin, gender, sexual orientation or mental or physical handicap or other distinguishing characteristic.

It affirms that all children deserve to be protected from bullying. The bill is not about protecting any one specific student over another.

I serve as a member of the Legislature’s Education and Cultural Affairs Committee, which heard extensive testimony on LD 1237, “An Act To Prohibit Bullying in Schools.” Our committee carefully considered the testimony of all parties and amended the bill to address many of the concerns raised by opponents. The bill was worked on by several stakeholders.

It strikes a balance between free speech rights and safety in the schools – and it provides desperately needed parameters for schools that are dealing with an epidemic of bullying and violence.

Maine public schools are required to have anti-bullying policies, and many school districts in Maine already have strong and effective anti-bullying policies in place. Falmouth has a well-defined and strongly enforced anti-bullying policy. This bill would just create consistency and provide guidance on best practices for anti-bullying policies.

One reason given for opposing LD 1237 is that this legislation would take away local control from schools. This legislation does not impact local control, but does require all schools to develop and implement a bullying prevention policy. The legislation provides guidance by providing more clear definitions of bullying. The Department of Education will develop a model policy and provide access to policies already put together by school districts in Maine. Developing and implementing policies such as this are precisely what school boards and school administrators do every day to ensure a safe and secure learning environment for all students.

Another claim was that this bill would impose significant costs on schools. I have spoken with a number of school administrators who assured me that the cost to school districts would be negligible and easily absorbed into current budgets. The “cost” of teaching tolerance is negligible, I believe, to the alternative of not dealing with bullying of students who may look different, or express themselves differently than others.

Opponents also said the policy may violate the First Amendment right to free speech. How can we allow the First Amendment to justify dangerous and sometimes deadly harassment and cruel behavior?

We have all read and heard the stories nationally of the tragic results of students who have been subjected to bullying. In 2010, there were at least 14 suicides resulting from bullying. If that’s not compelling enough reason to take action, consider that the National Education Association estimates that 160,000 children miss school every day due to fear of attack or intimidation by other students.

Students subjected to bullying often see a sharp decline in their academic performance, they become anti-social, they have high absence rates and often drop out of school completely, and have even gone to the extent of taking their own lives.

Now more than ever, it is critically and urgently important to prevent bullying. It is my hope that when we return to this issue next year, we can put ideology aside and vote to protect our children.

State Rep. Mary Nelson is a Falmouth Democrat.