Thursday, February 24, 2011

Public Education Committee to Hear Bullying Bills

Two bills concerning bullying, HB24 and HB224, have been scheduled for public hearing on Tuesday, March 1 in the House Public Education Committee:

HB 24 by Rep. Ryan Guillen would allow schools to place students who engage in electronic harassment in alternative school if the communication was sent from school grounds or the communication was received on equipment that is school property. Current law does not recognize cyber-bullying and gives administrators no ability to address cyber-bullying that takes place off-campus (Legislative Queery's initial post on HB 24 is HERE)

HB 224 by Rep. Mark Strama 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 and allows school administrators to transfer bullies to a different class or campus than their victims (under current law only the victim may be transferred). It creates a uniform definition of bullying in the education code, adding cyber-bullying and allows school administrators to address cyber-bullying 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. The bill also includes a requirement that schools report statistics on bullying to the state. (Legislative Queery's initial post on HB 224 is HERE)

Chairman Rob Eissler scheduled both bills for the committee's regular hearing at 2:00 pm on Tuesday (or later if the House doesn't get out in time, which seems unlikely). Because of the similarities between the two bills it is likely that they will be discussed (or "laid out") at the same time. I do not expect the committee to eventually take a vote on both bills. Instead they will probably take any parts of Guillen's bill that they like better than Strama's and attach it to HB 224.

HB 224 was filed last session as HB 1323, which was also referred to the Public Education Committee and was eventually voted out (for Legislative Queery's somewhat exhaustive exploration of that bill's journey go HERE). HB 1323 was scheduled for public hearing on the 77th day of the 81st session, the fact that HB 224 is scheduled for public hearing on the 50th day gives me great hope. It shows that Chairman Eissler (who chaired the committee last session as well) is giving this issue more attention.

The committee will hear several bills during the hearing. The order the bills are taken in is completely at the chairman's discretion. Typically committee chairs will hear bills that have strong public interest first, so that people who have traveled to Austin to testify can get on their way, but there is no predicting the actual order.

Any member of the public may testify at a public hearing. All they have to do is go to the hearing room (E2.036), fill out a form and hand the form into one of the committee's staff, who will be sitting at the front of the room. People testifying before the committee are required to indicate which bills they are testifying about (so if someone wants to testify about both HB 24 and HB 224 they need to fill out two forms) and to say if they are testifying "For", "Against" or "On" the bill. (Generally people do not testify "On" the bill unless they are state employees who are their to provide factual or background information to the committee.) It is also possible to fill out the form as "present - not testifying" which creates a public record of the person's position without having to speak before the committee. Chairman Eissler has indicated that each person's testimony will be limited to three minutes.

Last session only two people testified against Strama's bill: a representative of the ACLU who believed that “shielding children from getting snubbed or being called names undermines children's ability to develop the coping mechanisms to be able to fend for themselves” and a representative from the radical right-wing "Freemarket Association" who did not testify. Conservative radio and "news" stations have begun to portray anti-bullying efforts as an insidious plot to push the "gay agenda" (whatever that means). I would not be surprised if there were more people testifying against the bill this session.

(By the way, the ACLU of Texas' phone number is (512) 478-7300 and their e-mail is -- I, for one, will be contacting them urging them not to testify in support of bullying as a vital educational experience this session.)

Seven of last session's committee members are back this time around: Eissler, Hochberg, Allen, Aycock, Dutton, Shelton and Webber. Eissler is about as conservative as they come, but his scheduling of the bill for hearing, plus his history of scheduling it in the past means that he could possibly vote in favor. Hochberg, Allen and Dutton have good histories of supporting the LGBT community and will likely support HB 224. Two sessions ago Aycock voted against an amendment by Rep. Garnet Coleman that would have required reporting very similar to HB 224's - I worry that that part of the bill will be a sticking point for him. Shelton and Webber are sophomore members of the House and don't have a strong voting record to base predictions on. Webber prides himself on his tech savvy and reliance on hard facts and statistics (he is known for fact-checking his fellow committee members during hearings using his laptop). He may be convinced to support HB 224 if given sufficient empirical data that the approach it proposes would achieve the desired effect (or if he is informed that in a 2010 Equality Texas poll 79.2% of Texas voters said that they support uniform anti-bullying legislation to prohibit harassment in schools, including the children of gay/lesbian parents or teens who are gay).

Four of the committee's members are new: Guillen, Huberty, Smith and Strama. It's a pretty safe bet that Strama and Guillen support their own bills. Huberty is a freshman, recently swept into office on the teabagger wave, it's pretty much impossible to predict his actions but I'm guessing he will look to the senior republican members of the committee (Eissler and Aycock) for direction. If Todd Smith votes for this bill I'll eat my hat. Expect him to offer helpful suggestions to parents who testify to the committee about encouraging their children not to stand out so much, and thus avoiding making themselves targets.

To pass out of committee anti-bullying legislation needs the support of the chairman and at least 6 "Yes" votes. I count: 5 definite Yes's, 1 maybe, 2 probably not's, 1 hell no, and 2 who the hell knows. Both of these bills have a very good chance of making it out of committee in some form, but the public will need to strongly express their support to the committee members to push anti-bullying legislation through committee and on to the House floor.


If you support anti-bullying legislation I encourage you to contact the members of the committee and ask for their support. The e-mail addresses and phone numbers for all the members and select staffers are below. There is also a copy-and-paste list of all the e-mail addresses at the bottom if you only have time to send one e-mail.

House Committee on Education Members

Rob Eissler, (Chair)
512-463-0797 Fax: 512-463-0898

Scott Hochberg, (Vice Chair)
512-463-0492 Fax: 512-463-5896

Alma Allen
512-463-07445 Fax: 512-463-0761

Jimmie Don Aycock
512-463-0684 Fax: 512-463-8987

Harold Dutton, Jr
512-463-0510 Fax: 512-463-8333

Representative Ryan Guillen
512-463-0416 Fax: 512-463-1012

Dan Huberty
512-463-0520 Fax: 512-463-1606

Mark Shelton
512-463-0608 Fax: 512-463-8342

Todd Smith
512-463-0522 Fax: 512-463-9529

Mark Strama
512-463-0821 Fax: 512-463-1199

Randy Weber
512-463-0707 Fax: 512-463-8717

In addition each of the Representatives has a staffer whose primary responsibility is handling education issues:

Jenna Watts - Rob Eissler, (Chair)

Becky Cohen - Scott Hochberg, (Vice Chair)

Brian Waldrup - Alma Allen

Belinda Pustka - Jimmie Don Aycock

Stephanie Russell - Harold Dutton, Jr.

Cory Howell or Katy Johnson - Representative Ryan Guillen

Maggie Irwin - Dan Huberty

Sierra Stephens - Mark Shelton

Trish Conradt - Todd Smith

Mary Throop - Mark Strama

Chara McMichael - Randy Weber

If you only have time to write one e-mail copy and paste the list below into the "to" field to reach all of the committee members and their education staffers.;;;;;;;;;;;;;;;;;;;;;;;

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