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The Price of Bullying

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In the 2011 legislative session, Louisiana lawmakers defeated State Rep. Austin Badon's anti-bullying bill after heavy pushback from religious conservatives. The Rev. Gene Mills — president of the powerful "family values" group Louisiana Family Forum — referred to it as the "Homosexual Bullying Bill," and John Yeats of the Louisiana Southern Baptist Convention said, "Homosexual activists are hijacking the bullying statutes to promote homosexuality."

  Ridiculous, any way you look at it. Last year's bill, like this year's House Bill 407, the proposed 2012 Louisiana School Bullying Prevention Act, didn't single out gay and lesbian youth. Rather, it protected all children from bullying — including children of Southern Baptists and religious fundamentalists. It gave no one special privileges; it simply put all students on equal footing when it came to having the right to attend school without being verbally or physically harassed or attacked.

  It's not as if bullies just pick on kids they perceive to be gay. They also target the new kid, the overweight kid, the kid with a learning disability, the kid who developed faster or slower than his or her peers, the kid who wears glasses, the kid who wears the "wrong" clothes — or any kid who is unlucky enough to catch a bully's eye for any reason. Like Tesa Middlebrook.

  On March 2, Middlebrook, a senior at Pointe Coupee Central High School, walked onto the school's athletic field and hanged herself from the bleachers. Middlebrook was a transfer student from Nebraska who had good grades, an affinity for the arts and few friends in her new home. She was also the victim of repeated bullying at the school, her family says.

  Then there was 14-year-old Savannah Robinson of Slidell, who killed herself in August 2011 after what her family said was relentless bullying at school. After Robinson's story was shared by Anderson Cooper on his CNN program AC360, her grandmother wrote to Cooper, "I am very grateful that you have taken a stand on the issue of bullying in school because her story never reached the local media here in Louisiana. I have lost my granddaughter to this terrible demon that society cannot seem to erase."

  HB 407, by Rep. Pat Smith, D-Baton Rouge, comes too late to save those girls' lives, but it will give their schools — all schools — a mechanism to address future bullying, just as the law gives police a framework to address adult forms of harassment. The passage of HB 407 will take away no one's rights to his or her opinions on any matter. What it will do is codify the right of children to attend school without being verbally or physically threatened or attacked. HB 407 also does not set forth punishments or disciplinary actions, leaving that to local schools and school districts.

  The watchdog organization Bully Police, which scores states based on their anti-bullying laws, gives Louisiana a C. Texas — hardly a bastion of liberalism — got an A from the group for its 2011 overhaul of its bullying laws. Texas law now recognizes cyberbullying and includes a program to transfer bullied students to other campuses. It also provides intervention and prevention programs aimed at youth suicide. It's a good model for Louisiana to emulate, and passage of HB 407 would get us much closer to that goal.

  When HIV and AIDS became news in the 1980s, many Americans rightly decided that frank discussion about condoms and safe sex practices could save lives. Back then, some objected on grounds of self-styled morality, or because the topic was just too uncomfortable for them. It's much the same today with laws about school bullying. We need to be able to talk about this "terrible demon" honestly — and do something about it.

  In a March 20 speech in Arlington, Texas, U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder said, "We have an obligation to protect young people who are targeted just because they're perceived as 'different' — and to make sure they know that ... those who have been targeted by their classmates are not alone." Holder added, "No one deserves to be bullied, harassed, or victimized because of who they are, how they worship, or who they love." How that simple restatement of the Golden Rule could be so abhorrent to some who portray themselves as devotees of Christianity and "family values" is baffling.

  The Louisiana Association of Educators, the Louisiana School Counselors Association, the National Association of Social Workers and the National Alliance on Mental Illness-Louisiana, among many other groups, have all urged passage of HB 407. We add our voice to that chorus, and we urge lawmakers to have the moral courage to pass it.

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