Wednesday, March 16, 2011

Day 65: Strama's Bully Bill: Take Three

Today is the 65th day of the regular session of the 82nd Texas Legislature. The House reconvenes at 10 am, the Senate at 11 am.

Last Friday, March 11, was the 60th day of the 82nd regular session of the Texas Legislature. The 60th day of session is the deadline for filing bills in the House, the Senate does not have a deadline (other than the end of session). That means that the 3,804 bill currently filed in the House are all the bills that will be filed.

This doesn't mean that new legislative ideas can't pop up. As bills begin to make their way through committee and on to the House floor they will be subject to amendment. Technically speaking, amendments in committee are actually made to the committee report, not to the bill. Each committee that hears a bill is charged with creating a report on that bill. Most of the time they don't bother creating the report unless the bill is "reported favorably", or approved by the committee. It is possible for committees to "report unfavorably" but they generally don't bother.

In addition to the text of the bill committee report always includes a "fiscal note" (an estimate of what the bill will cost the state); a "bill summary" (an everyday language report of what the bill does) and list of people who testified on the bill when it was heard in committee. The report may also contain, depending on the content of the bill:
  • a dynamic economic impact statement (if bill impacts the number of jobs at state agencies),
  • a criminal justice impact statement (if the bill would impact the number of people in state jails or the cost of housing people in state jails),
  • an equalized education funding impact statement (if the bill changes the way the state distributes funds to local school districts),
  • an actuarial impact statement (if the bill effects the state's public employee retirement system),
  • a water development policy impact statement (if the bill creates a water district),
  • a tax equity note (if the bill creates a tax).
The committee report may also contain suggested changes to the bill. This is known as a "committee substitute". Committee substitutes may not substantially change the intended purpose of the bill, but they can vary widely from the original content of the bill. The committee substitute is is only a suggestion by the committee. Until the House agrees to "take up" the bill, approves the committee report and then decides to consider the committee substitute instead of the original bill the committee substitute remains only a suggestion. Once the substitute is considered in lieu of the original bill it becomes the official version which is debated on the House floor.

This is the challenge currently facing Rep. Strama with his anti-bullying bill (HB 224). Strama has already offered one new version of his bill to the House Public Education committee. After holding a public hearing on the new version he has returned to the drawing board and is currently drafting a new version designed to address the concerns raised by the committee.

The biggest concern, by far, raised by members of the House Public Education committee and other House members is with the "cyber-bullying" portions of the bill. Strama's original version, and his first suggested committee substitute, would both allow school administrators to address on-line harassment that either 1) was sent from on campus or from a school event 2) was received on campus or at a school event or 3) was designed to disrupt the educational environment (for instance a tweet telling a student that they will be assaulted if they come to school the next day is designed to prevent that student from getting an education). Critics of the bill have argued that all off-campus behavior should be addressed by parents and law enforcement, not by school administrators and have characterized the cyber-bullying provisions as an "over-reach".

Much of the behavior that would be covered by Strama's narrowly-defined cyber-bullying provision is already illegal under Texas penal code. For instance, a tweet telling a student that they will be assaulted if they come to school the next day is a Class A misdemeanor under Texas penal code section 22.07, and creating a fake Facebook or Twitter account proporting to be another student and portraying that student as sexually lascivious is a third degree felony under Texas penal code section 33.07. Under currently law a teacher or administrator who is aware of this kind of on-line harassment cannot address it, except by calling local law enforcement.

Nobody gets into teaching because they like the idea of turning children who make bad decisions into felons. They get into teaching because they care about children and want to help them make good decisions. In revising his bill to make it more palatable to the committee I hope that Rep. Strama will, at the very least, include provisions that allow administrators to address off-campus behavior that is currently illegal using methods more appropriate to children, such as allowing administrators to require counseling or mandate participation in trainings designed to improve the decision-making skills of these would-be felons.

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