Latest Louisiana anti-bullying bill update

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Friday, June 1 update: The State Senate adopted the House amendments for Senate Bill 764 (The Tesa Middlebrook Anti-Bullying Act) with a 37-0 vote.

While the Louisiana legislature has turned away most of the anti-bullying bills proposed in the last several years, one is now in the Senate awaiting final approval. It already has the support of Gov. Bobby Jindal. Senate Bill 764, authored by state Sen. Rick Ward, D-Port Allen, is named the Tesa Middlebrook Anti-bullying Act, named after the 17-year-old Pointe Coupee Parish student who hanged herself from her school’s bleachers earlier this year. Yesterday afternoon, within minutes of its introduction, the final version of the bill passed 97-0 in the state House. (Read the Gambit cover story, "Bullied To Death," here.)

Despite a big push from Rep. Austin Badon and state Sen. Karen Carter Peterson in 2011, bullying bills failed against conservative legislators and the Louisiana Family Forum (LFF). This year, despite overwhelming support from educators and national groups on mental illness and equal rights protection, similar bills in the state House and Senate failed.

Last month, state Rep. Pat Smith, D-Baton Rouge, pulled her bill from committee when it was amended to remove the language for which she specifically wrote the bill — it spelled out bullying as harassment for a student’s race, religion, illness or disability, and sexual identity or orientation. The Senate Education Committee refused to back an identical bill by Sen. Yvonne Dorsey-Colomb, D-Baton Rouge. The bills faced strong opposition from the Louisiana Family Forum (LFF). An LFF-friendly bully bill by state Rep. John Schroder, R-Covington, exempted philosophical, political or religious beliefs from being considered bullying, but that bill was also pulled.

Earlier this year, a similar loophole in proposed Tennessee legislation spelled out nearly exactly the same exceptions to an anti-bullying law. Christian conservatives in that state also made exactly the same statements as they did in this state. In his December 2011 newsletter, David Fowler of the Family Action Council of Tennessee wrote that the proposed law “protects the religious liberty and free speech rights of students who want to express their views on homosexuality.”

The LFF wrote that Dorsey-Colomb’s bill is “a politically charged bullying bill not supported by LFF because of important constitutional concerns.” The conservative group with ties to the Evangelical wing of the GOP supported Ward’s bill as “an authentic anti-bullying bill which comprehensively and rationally protects all children equally.”

Schroder co-authored Ward’s bill, which gives clearer definition to bullying (and cyberbullying) and how to report bullying. An earlier draft included the same language from Schroder’s failed measure: listed under “exceptions,” the bill stated, “This policy shall not be interpreted to infringe upon the speech of rights” and “the religious free speech right of students” under the First Amendment, provided that “such expression does not cause an actual, material disruption of the work of the school.” The current bill says the measures should not “infringe upon the right of a school employee or student to exercise their right of free speech.”

“This has been a process over the last couple years, and a lot of discussions, a lot of debate,” Schroeder told the House. “Unfortunately, it’s something we have to deal with.” Schroder thanked Smith during his House address.

Earlier this month, a broad coalition of religious groups released a pamphlet, “Harassment, Bullying and Free Expression: Guidelines for Free and Safe Public Schools,” which aims to address religious free speech rights in schools. The group argues many religious students are often punished as bullies for expressing their views, particularly on gay students.

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