While the Michigan Senate passed legislation last week requiring school districts to develop anti-bullying policies, several Democrats have insisted the senate has managed to pass laws that protects bullies instead of the peers they victimize.
The bill, known as Matt's Safe School Law is named for Matt Epling, a teenager from East Lansing who committed suicide after being bullied*. Although the legislation requires public schools to develop anti-bullying policies, a last minute clause added by Republican senators states the legislation does not prohibit school employees or students from expressing a statement of a sincerely held religious belief or moral conviction, an addition that critics claim essentially justifies harassment for moral reasons.
Does Clause Amount to Government-Sanctioned Bigotry?
Kevin Epling, who has worked with lawmakers for years to develop the anti-bullying legislation named after his son, told the Detroit Free Press that the added language makes him ashamed.
This is just unconscionable. This is government-sanctioned bigotry, Epling said.
Republicans reportedly only agreed to an anti-bullying measure that does not require school districts to report bullying incidents, does not include provisions for teacher training and does not hold administrators responsible for failing to act on reported bullying incidents. Time Magazine reports the GOP also blocked Democratic attempts to specify particular groups of students that are more prone to being victimized, such as gay students and racial minorities.
All 11 Democrats voted against the bill as a result of the last-minute provision, claiming it offers special protections for religiously-motivated bullying that particularly targets gay students.
Not only does this not protect kids who are bullied, it further endangers them by legitimizing excuses for tormenting a student, Senate Minority Leader Gretchen Whitmer, D-East Lansing, said in an address ahead of the Senate vote. And the saddest, and sickest, irony of this whole thing is that it's called 'Matt's Safe School Law' and after the way you gutted it, it wouldn't have done a damn thing to save Matt.
10 Suicides by Michigan Teenagers in Past Decade
There have been at least 10 suicides by bullied teens in Michigan during the past decade.
The bill will be considered by the state House of Representatives this week, where it is expected to pass. Whitmer sent a letter to House Speaker Jase Bolger warning him the people of Michigan will be watching closely as the House prepares to vote on the bill.
Republicans argue that all students would be equally protected under the proposal, although the bill's sponsor, Republican state Sen. Rick Jones of Grand Ledge, acknowledged it may not be ideal.
This bill may not be perfect, but it certainly gets us on the road to making sure that local communities pay attention to this problem and put a policy in place, Jones said in a statement. Last week, Jones told the Lansing State Journal that he could have done without the last-minute provision but said it is necessary to ensure individuals' First Amendment rights are protected.
*CORRECTION: A previous version of this article stated Matt Epling was gay and that his suicide was a attributed to a gay-bullying incident. However, Kevin Epling has said Matt was not gay and that his assault was not based on his sexuality.