Michigan Senate Republicans have taken what could have been a useful, and much-needed, anti-bullying bill and turned it into what amounts to a license to bully. Senate Bill 137, which passed 26 to 11 with zero Democratic votes, was meant to protect all students from bullying and harassment. Yet the bill, already weakened by the lack of enumerated classes to be protected, was further gutted by conservatives in the Senate, who slipped in dangerous "exemptions" that gives bullies free rein to harass other students.
In the mind of some GOP Michigan lawmakers, there are exemptions, and thereby logical excuses, for bullying. Those purposely vague exemptions give bullies, whether it be fellow students, teachers, school employees, or other parents, a legal out if their act of harassment on another young person was done because of "deep moral conviction" or "religious belief."
That's right: if a bully says they believe their harassment is "morally" valid, this bill agrees with them, and they are free to continue their behavior without consequence. These "moral and religious" exemptions seem squarely focused at allowing bullying against gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgender students, who are at higher risk for harassment in schools and in need of strong legislative protections.
Senate Minority Leader Gretchen Whitmer (D-East Lansing) took to the floor of the Senate to voice her outrage at the amended language and the danger of the exemptions:
Here today you claim to be protecting kids and you're actually putting them in more danger. But bullying is not OK. We should be protecting public policy that protects kids, all kids, from bullies, all bullies. But instead you have set us back further by creating a blueprint for bullying.
Emily Dievendorf, policy director of Equality Michigan, was equally troubled by the language of the bill, both because of the exemptions and the lack of enumerated classes:
Shockingly, Senate Bill 137 will do more harm than good. Senate Republicans left our students behind in favor of partisan politics and passed a bill that actually allows more bullying. Students and parents expect lawmakers to lead the charge against bullying, but instead Republicans made ideology more important than school safety. Research clearly shows that only states with enumerated bills see a reduction in bullying. We need a bill that mentions the most affected populations and requires statewide reporting of bullying and harassment. SB 137 simply does nothing to reduce bullying in our schools.
As Dievendorf points out, beyond the broad exemptions that give license to bully, the lack of enumeration is also deeply troubling. An enumerated anti-bullying bill would specifically list classes of people that are most often targeted by bullies for reasons of race, creed, age, sex, religion, sexual orientation, or gender identity and gender expression, making for a much stronger and more evenly enforceable standard of anti-bullying protection for all schools across the state. Without specific enumerations and guidelines, it falls to the individual schools, principals, or teachers to decide what bullying is and if it is prohibited. That, combined with the broad exemptions, leaves many students unprotected and with no recourse when they are being bullied.
Perhaps one of the most disturbing parts of gutting and weakening of SB 137 is the fact that it is named "Matt's Safe School Law," after Matt Epling, a Michigan teen who killed himself as a result of extensive bullying. Kevin Epling, the East Lansing parent of Matt who has worked with lawmakers for years to developed anti-bullying legislation, was outraged by the gutting of the bill named after his son:
I am ashamed that this could be Michigan's bill on anti-bullying, when in fact it is a "bullying is OK in Michigan" law.
This is just unconscionable. This is government-sanctioned bigotry.
SB 137 now moves to the Republican-controlled House, where there are signs that the national attention and outrage over the "License to Bully" Bill seems to be pushing some of the Republicans in power to try to change the Senate bill. The spokesperson for Michigan Speaker of the House Jase Bolger (R-Marshall) says the bill passed by the state senate is "not what the final law will look like." Pushed further over the weekend, the spokesperson said the the Speaker opposes the religious exemption contained in SB 137 and that House Republicans are working to develop a "consensus" bill that would address many concerns the Senate bill has raised to be taken up as soon as this week.
Advocates for a stronger anti-bullying bill are continuing to push hard for a better bill. Equality Michigan's Emily Dievendorf used the Speaker of the House's statements to call for a more inclusive bill:
The Senate Republicans took an already ineffective bill and made it an abusive bill that justifies bullying against our students. While the national spotlight is on the neglectful actions of the Senate Republicans, House Republicans can pass the strong, comprehensive, enumerated bill Governor Snyder references when he recommends Michigan legislators model this legislation after the State Board of Education policy. Oregon wasted ten years following a policy that accomplished almost nothing before it took responsibility for Oregon kids and passed the effective enumerated language Michigan advocates are requesting. Michigan has the data and case studies to do what is right for our students the first time. The nation is watching.
The nation is indeed watching. With bullying and teen suicides getting the important media attention it deserves after the rash of high-profile cases in recent years, Americans know that this epidemic needs strong legislation and action to combat it.
There is no excuse, nor special exemption, for harassment and bullying. All young people deserve a safe space to learn, thrive and grow.
Petition the Michigan House to pass a better bill here.