Saturday, December 4, 2010

Wendy Davis Gets Anti-Bullying Legislation Right

SB 245 by Wendy Davis is the most comprehensive, thoughtful, piece of anti-bullying legislation filed this session. The bill is almost identical to HB 224 filed by Mark Strama in the House last month, but corrects one very important omission present in that bill.

Both bills offer a fairly comprehensive approach to fighting bullying. They requires all school districts to create a training program for staff, volunteers who work with students, students and parents designed to teach them to prevent, identify and respond to bullying. They also would allow school administrators to transfer bullies to a different class or campus than their victims if the victim's parents or guardians request it (under current law only the victim may be transferred) and create a uniform definition of bullying in the education code, adding cyberbullying.

Both bills would allow school administrators to address cyberbullying that takes place off campus if the electronic communication is received on campus or at a school event or if it substantially disrupts school operations, and include a requirement that schools report statistics on bullying to the state. It's in the specifics of the reporting requirement that the bills differ.

The House bill requires school districts to report if the cause of the bullying was based on actual or perceived race, ethnicity, color, religion, gender, sexual orientation, national origin or disability. The Senate bill has the same requirement, but includes Gender Identity and Expression in it's enumerated list.

Beyond adding a provision that will help transgender kids, the Senate bill is far more useful to Lesbian, Gay and Bisexual (and for that matter, Straight) students than the House version. More often than not, when kids are bullied for being queer it's not because of who they are attracted to, but because they are not conforming to other students expectations of how men and women are supposed to behave.

Davis served last session on the Senate Education Committee and is likely to do so again this session. Having a voice on the committee will help her in her efforts to pass this bill.

It's exciting to see this bill in the State Senate. The Texas Senate has historically been reticent to tackle the issue of bullying. Last session only two bills were filed on the topic, neither of which got a hearing (SB 29 (81R) by Zaffirini and SB 1725 (81R) by West) neither of which was as comprehensive as this bill.

It is generally harder to pass a bill in the Senate than in the House. Senate rules require that bills be considered in the order they are filed. Each session a "blocker bill" is filed early on. By general agreement this bill sits at the front of the line and no action is taken on it. It requires 2/3 of the Senate to set aside the rules and consider a bill out of order. With the blocker bill at the front of the line holding everything else up this means that, effectively, a Senator must get 2/3 of her colleagues to agree that voting on a bill is a good idea in order for it to pass.

Since passage in the Senate is a larger hurdle, having a bill that is this strong start on the Senate side gives me hope that we may actually see some real action taken by the legislature this session to fight bullying.

UPDATE: WFAA in Dallas has a short interview with Davis saying the bill was inspired by Fort Worth City Council Member Joel Burns famous "It Get's Better" speech. Burns was elected to fill the seat Davis held before running for for State Senate.

Thanks to Dallas Voice's Instant Tea Blog for pointing this out.

UPDATE (03/01/11): Davis has substituted the language on her bill SB 242 to make it a companion of Rep. Strama's HB 224 - the language of the two bills is now identical

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