A Baton Rouge, La., lawmaker withdrew her anti-bullying proposal this week after the state House Education Committee gutted it, taking out any reference to the type of activity that would be banned.
The proposal has become an annual flashpoint over the rights of gay students, and both Gov. Bobby Jindal and the conservative Louisiana Family Forum opposed the bill by Rep. Patricia Smith in its original form.
Bullying of students is prohibited in current Louisiana law, with school boards required to include such bans in student codes of conduct and determine punishment.
Smith, D-Baton Rouge, proposed rewriting the state’s anti-bullying statute to spell out that harassment and intimidation would not be allowed for race, ancestry, national origin, religion, disability, sexual orientation, gender identity and other listed factors.
Opponents said the list would create favored and protected classes of people.
The committee stripped the list in a 10-5 vote, so Smith shelved the bill.
“Members, rather than you degrade a bill that was meant for safety for children, which is what you’ve just done by this amendment, I am pulling the bill,” Smith told the committee.
Teachers and parents of students who were bullied pleaded with lawmakers to pass Smith’s original bill, saying teachers, school counselors and other education leaders need more guidance and training on what constitutes bullying and harassment.
Tiffany Phelps, executive director for an arts school, described the suicide of 17-year-old student Tesa Middlebrook, who hanged herself in March from her Pointe Coupee high school’s football bleachers. Phelps, urging passage of Smith’s original bill, told lawmakers Wednesday that Middlebrook was “bullied relentlessly.”
“When she would get off the bus every day, she would shake. She was scared to death. We reported it. We reported it to the right people. Her friends reported it ... Nothing happened,” Phelps said, her voice breaking.
She told the committee, “I beg you, I beg you to please, please, please vote yes.”
Critics of the original proposal said it could be deemed an unconstitutional restriction on free speech and could face legal challenges because terms like “abusive” and “harm” weren’t clearly defined.
Gene Mills, head of the Louisiana Family Forum, said the bill wouldn’t treat all children equally and would introduce sexual politics into the classroom.
“You’re creating categories and levels of protection that are favorable to some but not equitable to all,” Mills said.
During debate, Education Committee Chairman Steve Carter continually urged people to speed their testimony, including parents describing their child’s suicide and others describing bullying incidents. Carter, R-Baton Rouge, was attending a Jindal bill signing shortly after his committee ended with the shelving of Smith’s bill.
The House has rejected similar anti-bullying measures in recent years. Last year, the House watered down and then rejected the bill after an angry debate in which opponents claimed the measure was an attempt to promote a “gay agenda” in schools.
Bill proponents said they are trying to protect children and that intolerance shouldn’t be supported in schools.
“Children in our schools today should never feel like that they are not safe at a place where they spend six hours a day, and far too often that is not the case,” Smith said.
Louisiana’s current law leaves gray areas where teachers and principals aren’t told what constitutes bullying, rather than simple teasing, she said.
Several speakers talked about children who struggled through school amid repeated harassment because they were disabled, were gay or wore a head scarf reflecting their religious beliefs.
“One of the bullies was given an award for being an outstanding student,” said Adrienne Critcher, of Shreveport, who talked of her son’s harassment because he is gay.
Rep. Jeff Thompson, R-Bossier City, said while he agreed to require teacher and school personnel training about how to recognize bullying, he couldn’t support the list.
“When you start creating a list of the motives of something, you’re going to leave something out. And if you leave something out, you’re going to create a loophole,” Thompson said.
Smith could try to revive the proposal, but the vote appeared to make it unlikely she could get it through the full Legislature in its original form.
Read the bill online at www.legis.la.gov.