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Protecting Our Kids... All Our Kids

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As a mom of three young sons, I share the relief and hope that comes with the beginning of the school year, and watched my boys excitedly begin. They were thrilled to be back among their friends, excited about their new teachers and classrooms and ready to start a new year of learning. Unfortunately for many kids, the start of a new school year brings renewed fear and torment rather than the elated excitement kids should begin a new school year with.

According to the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychology, "...as many as half of all children are bullied at some time during their school years, and at least 10 percent are bullied on a regular basis." It is hard to imagine how an environment that includes that high of an incident rate could possibly be conducive for learning.

Illinois' Safe Schools Act, which was passed in 2010, was intended to afford protections to all students to address this problem. The law specifically listed 13 characteristics in order to draw attention to the most commonly bullied groups. The law also created a task force to study the implementation of the requirement that school districts formulate anti-bullying policies, recommend model responses to bullying for school districts to adopt and attempt to measure how widespread the problem of bullying in our schools really is.

The report from the task force found that while some school districts had in fact adopted comprehensive bullying policies, at least three had failed to comply with the law. Several other schools had adopted one line policies that failed to address how schools and school districts would respond to bullying and gave parents and students no tools or expectations that their concerns would be taken seriously.

Last session, I sponsored HB5290, a bill seeking to build on the successes of the Safe Schools Act and implement the recommendations of the task force. After several hearings, intense negotiations and a great deal of compromise, we were able to overcome strong objections of organizations representing the religious right who characterized the bill as being part of the "homosexual agenda" and pass the bill out of the Illinois House. Sadly, the efforts to mischaracterize the bill led to the bill failing by one vote in the Illinois Senate.

The objections to the bill were largely based on the inclusion of sexual orientation in the list of identified categories for bullying protection. In reality, the bill being debated did not add sexual orientation to the categories. The list of protected categories, which also includes a general statement of protection for any other group not specifically identified, was created in 2010. The language being added to the Safe Schools Act does not add to or change the list and the words "sexual orientation" are not part of the bill under consideration. The Illinois Family Institute went on the offensive, pointing to my sexual orientation as "proof" that the bill sought to indoctrinate children into homosexuality and demanding that the bill be amended to allow students or parents to "opt out" of any programming that they found objectionable. Since the bill does not even include programming or curriculum and freedom of speech already permits students to refuse to participate in extracurricular activities they find objectionable, such an amendment would not even make sense.

What also doesn't make sense is the entire argument that seems to imply comprehensive bullying policies shouldn't include protections for LGBT students. According to the Illinois Safe Schools Alliance, 35 percent of kids report being bullied in school because of their actual or perceived sexual orientation and 48 percent report that school personnel and leadership witness the use of homophobic language and bullying and do nothing in response.

It is not just LGBT youth that are in need of protection in our schools, and neither bill is written specifically for this group. However, any bill that is designed to combat bullying in schools would neither be comprehensive nor effective if it were to exclude a large segment of those being bullied.

When we ran the bill in the Senate, we felt sure that we had all the votes we needed to pass the bill and were shocked when three members changed their votes at the last minute. Since that time, the Senate sponsor, Heather Steans, and I have been working with advocates to secure commitments to pass the bill when the General Assembly reconvenes, possibly as early as the fall veto session. Unfortunately, because of the failure to pass the original bill through both chambers, we will need to run the bill through the House again and face the same demands from the Right to water it down. We all feel strongly that the changes we agreed to during the original debate met the reasonable demands from school districts to minimize the impact of unfunded mandates without detracting from the core goal of protecting kids in our schools. We are encouraged that with the help from advocates and supporters contacting their state legislators, we will be able to get past the extreme rhetoric and pass this very important child safety bill.

More often than not, when I hear from parents of bullied students, they report that they have tried everything from talking to teachers, principals, district administrators and law enforcement but their kids are still being bullied and they don't feel like anyone is taking them seriously. Kids by and large are left feeling like they have to find solutions on their own because they can't depend on the adults in their lives to help protect them. My own kids' experience with standard school yard bullying has left them already at their young ages convinced that seeking help from adults will only make matters worse. We are failing to protect our kids. We are failing to provide safe environments conducive to learning -- not just academic lessons, but also life lessons about being part of a community, resolving conflict and finding workable solutions to seemingly intractable problems.