Usual suspects out in opposition to New Jersey Anti-Bullying Bill of Rights

New Jersey is very close to passing what may be the most comprehensive bullying prevention law in the nation. In the works, for about a year, the “Anti-Bullying Bill of Rights” would amend current law and establish a “Week of Respect” as well as require districts to keep track of bullying incidents and provide penalties for school staff who ignore bullying. 

Sadly, the New Jersey Family Policy Council has expressed opposition to the bill because it retains a list of characteristics often associated with bullying behaviors. More precisely, New Jersey law prohibits bullying based on sexual orientation. In this Christian Post article, NJFPC staffer and PFOX board member Greg Quinlan elaborates:

Greg Quinlan of family advocacy group New Jersey Family Policy Council praised the effort, proclaiming, “We need to put a culture of dignity and respect in schools.”

But he lamented that the bill has some holes that may limit its effectiveness. Quinlan, a director of government affairs for NJFPC’s legislative arm, Family First, said the bill is “segregated” to prevent and treat bullying of particular groups.

The bill enumerates classifications such as race, color, religion, ancestry, national origin, gender, gender identity and expression as it relates to homosexuality, and mental, physical and sensory disability as characteristics that generally cause bullying, harassment and/ or intimidation.

Quinlan pointed out, “Obesity is not on the list. Ex-gays like myself are not on the list.”

He stressed that “bullying is bullying” and all forms of bullying should be recognized in the bill language.

Staff of the bill sponsors pointed out that the detailed list of bullied characteristics is simply stated as examples. The bill also carries catch all language which includes “any other distinguishing characteristics.”

Nevertheless, Quinlan is worried that the bill will censure teachers and students from exercising their first amendment rights to express their beliefs for fear that it may lead to disciplinary action. He noted that a teacher who might say, “There is no gay gene,” may be written up as a expressing a bullying comment. Also, expressions of faith may be construed as excluding or berating other faiths.

You can read the bill here (A-3466). The list of characteristics are reproduced below. Note that the discrepancy between the list in NJ law and what Quinlan describes in the article. Homosexuality is not mentioned anywhere in law or A-3466. Bracketed words will not be kept in law; underlined words are what is added by A-3466.

“Harassment, intimidation or bullying” means any gesture, any written, verbal or physical act, or any electronic communication that is reasonably perceived as being motivated either by any actual or perceived characteristic, such as race, color, religion, ancestry, national origin, gender, sexual orientation, gender identity and expression, or a mental, physical or sensory [handicap] disability, or by any other distinguishing characteristic, that takes place on school property, at any school-sponsored function or on a school bus and that:

a. a reasonable person should know, under the circumstances, will have the effect of physically or emotionally harming a student or damaging the student’s property, or placing a student in reasonable fear of physical or emotional harm to his person or damage to his property; [or]

b. has the effect of insulting or demeaning any student or group of students in such a way as to cause [substantial] disruption in, or [substantial] interference with, the orderly operation of the school;

c. creates a hostile environment at school for the student; or

d. infringes on the rights of the student at school.

First, let’s understand that this list is already in NJ law. Second and in contrast to what Quinlan says, all students are covered by this list. On point, obesity would be included in either the section on “physical disability” or via “any other distinguishing characteristic.” Ex-gay is on the list via sexual orientation or even religion, since ex-gay most often means behaviorally resisting same-sex desire for religious reasons. 

I have little sympathy for his concerns over first amendment rights to say “there is no gay gene.” Nothing in this bill removes first amendment rights to say a true thing. Now, if a teacher or staffer says to a student, “there is no gay gene, therefore, you can and should change your sexual orientation,” this would be a different matter. One, such a statement would not be based in fact. Two, it could be imposing a religious view on a student and three, it may indeed create a hostile environment. Therefore such a statement would be met with heightened scrutiny.

It seems to come back to the problem some Christians have when addressing anti-gay bullying — they want to make sure they maintain the right to speak disapproval of homosexuality. That right is not eliminated by this  bill. However, to me, this right is of lesser importance than the need for kids to have a safe place to go to school.

Statement about recent bullying related suicides: Education Sec. Arne Duncan

The link for the statement is here…

U.S. Department of Education

Office of Communications & Outreach, Press Office

400 Maryland Ave., S.W.

Washington, D.C. 20202

FOR RELEASE

Oct. 1, 2010

Contact: Press Office

(202) 401-1576 or press@ed.gov

STATEMENT BY U.S. SECRETARY OF EDUCATION ARNE DUNCAN

On the Recent Deaths of Two Young Men

       U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan today released the following statement:

       “This week, we sadly lost two young men who took their own lives for one unacceptable reason: they were being bullied and harassed because they were openly gay or believed to be gay. These unnecessary tragedies come on the heels of at least three other young people taking their own lives because the trauma of being bullied and harassed for their actual or perceived sexual orientation was too much to bear.

       “This is a moment where every one of us – parents, teachers,

students, elected officials, and all people of conscience – needs to stand up and speak out against intolerance in all its forms. Whether it’s students harassing other students because of ethnicity, disability or religion; or an adult, public official harassing the President of the University of Michigan student body because he is gay, it is time we as a country said enough. No more. This must stop.”

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October is National Bullying Prevention Month

A group called Parents Advocacy Committee for Educational Rights (PACER) has hosted a National Bullying Prevention week for the past four years. This year they are observing this week as usual but have also expanded the event through the month of October. 

At the link above, many activities and ideas are provided for classroom teachers and youth leaders. I signed the pledge and encourage you to do so and pass the link along.

CNN is focusing on bullying this week, starting with a segment on bullying featuring and appearance with Kevin Jennings  and Kirk Smalley this morning. The page for all of their coverage is here.

The New York Times had an article yesterday on the topic of GLB suicides related to bullying.

I plan to post frequently this week on the topic and hope we can continue to work through issues which divide to get a societal consensus on how to address the problems.