This year's lead anti-bullying bill, House Bill 407 by state Rep. Pat Smith, D-Baton Rouge, proposed strengthening existing anti-bullying legislation for Louisiana schools, but it's now dead for the session. So is a rival bill by state Rep. John Schroder, R-Covington.
Smith's bill included language intended to protect all children, with a clearer definition of bullying. It would have required schools to train faculty to identify bullying in and out of the classroom. Last week, the House Education Committee voted 10-5 to make sweeping changes to the bill — eliminating language that enumerated, among other things, a student's race, religion, disabilities and sexual identities as protected factors.
It was too much for Smith. "Rather than you degrade a bill that was meant for the safety of children, which is what you have just done, I am pulling the bill," she told the committee.
Smith's bill was inspired by statewide and national reports of bullying and bullying-provoked suicides — including the recent deaths of high school students Tesa Middlebrook of Pointe Coupee Parish and Savannah Robinson of Slidell, among others (see "Bullied to Death," March 27). It's the second year in a row the measure has failed. Last year, State Rep. Austin Badon's anti-bullying bill was rejected in the House, after which he told Gambit, "For us to sit here and say that the conservative, religious right is going to dictate to us how we're going to vote, I'm embarrassed by that."
The bill's opponents this year — notably Gov. Bobby Jindal and the evangelical organization Louisiana Family Forum (LFF) — said Smith's bill would infringe on free speech rights, and its "categories of protection," namely in protecting students' sexual identities or gender identification, "creates winners and losers." Last month, LFF director Gene Mills told Gambit, "When you introduce a category of protection that doesn't have a clear legal definition, how do you administer that law in equitable fashion?" Mills said it's better to have no bill at all. He got his wish.
Schroder, meanwhile, introduced HB 1101, which would expand the definitions and applications of the state's present anti-bullying law but exempt "religious, philosophical or political views" that do not cause "actual, material disruption to the work of any school." Schroder's bill also was sent to the House Education Committee, but he told Gambit late last week that he is pulling his bill. He did not offer a reason why.
A Senate version of Smith's bill, filed by Baton Rouge Sen. Yvonne Dorsey-Lacombe and Pointe Coupee Sen. Rick Ward, remains in committee as of press time. — Alex Woodward