December 2, 2010 | by Lou Chibbaro Jr.
LGBT witnesses back D.C. anti-bullying bills

D.C. Mayor-elect Vincent Gray presided over a hearing this week on two bills to address bullying and harassment in public schools. (Washington Blade file photo by Michael Key)

Nine witnesses representing the LGBT community expressed strong support for two bills aimed at prohibiting bullying in D.C. schools, public libraries and parks during a City Council hearing this week.

The LGBT witnesses, including two gay and one transgender student, gave examples of anti-LGBT bullying and harassment in the D.C. public school system. They joined other witnesses in noting that existing public school policies pertaining to bullying were not strong enough to adequately address the problem.

“The District of Columbia has been a pioneer on issues such as nondiscrimination in schools and yet is one of only a handful of jurisdictions in this country without an anti-bullying law,” said Alison Gill, a public policy associate with the Gay, Lesbian & Straight Education Network (GLSEN).

Gill and other witnesses pointed to the 2009 D.C. Youth Risk Behavior Survey, a federally funded study that includes data on lesbian, gay, and bisexual youth. Among other things, the study found that 29 percent of LGB teens in the city’s middle schools and high schools have attempted suicide. The study did not collect data on transgender students.

Anti-gay bullying and harassment are believed to have played a large role in prompting the youth to consider suicide, Gill and other witnesses said.

D.C. Mayor-elect Vincent Gray presided over the hearing in his current role as City Council Chair and chair of the Council’s Committee of the Whole. He takes office as mayor on Jan. 2.

The Committee of the Whole and the Committee on Libraries, Parks and Recreation, which is chaired by Council member Harry Thomas (D-Ward 5), conducted a joint hearing on the two bills, the Bullying Prevention Act of 2010 and the Harassment and Intimidation Prevention Act of 2010.

Gray said after the hearing that the two bills would be combined following a markup hearing that he predicted would take place sometime next year.

“I don’t see the evidence of a comprehensive policy existing in the city on this,” Gray told reporters after the hearing, saying a combined version of the two bills would go a long way to address the problem of bullying.

The Bullying Prevention Act, which Gray and Council member Michael Brown (I-At-Large) introduced in April, calls for developing a “model policy prohibiting bullying, harassment and intimidation in the District of Columbia public schools.” It requires all public schools to adopt an anti-bullying and harassment policy at least as strong as the model policy defined in the bill.

The Harassment and Intimidation Prevention Act, which was introduced in October by Thomas, calls for developing similar policies banning bullying and harassment but expands the coverage to D.C. public charter schools, the city’s public libraries and parks and recreation centers, and to the University of the District of Columbia.

Thomas’s bill also covers bullying and harassment conducted through “electronic communication,” such as e-mail or social networking sites.

The bill defines harassment, intimidation or bullying as “any gesture or written, verbal or physical act, including 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, or by any other distinguishing characteristic…”

It says an act of bullying, intimidation or harassment would be one that “a reasonable person should know, under the circumstances, will have the effect of harming a student or damaging the student’s property, or placing a student in reasonable fear of harm to his person or damage to his property.”

The definition further states that the act in question “has the effect of insulting or demeaning any student or group of students in such as way as to cause substantial disruption in, or substantial interference with, the orderly operation of a school, university, recreation facility, or library.”

Arthur Spitzer, legal director of the D.C. chapter of the ACLU, said the ACLU supports the concept of anti-bullying legislation but has concerns that the wording of the two proposed bills in D.C. could violate students’ civil liberties.

“What does it mean by harming a student?” he said of part of the definition in one of the bills. “Does that mean hurting a student’s feelings? If a student comes in and says I feel very harmed by the fact that so and so said I was a crappy athlete … That’s not bullying,” he said.

“So I think the language here needs to be tightened up.”

Spitzer told the Washington Post that it would be “perfectly legitimate” for a student to say he or she thinks homosexual conduct is “against the word of God.” Although such a comment might hurt the feelings of a gay student, that should not be defined as bullying but instead as “an opinion that every student has a right to express,” he told the Post.

GLSEN spokesperson Daryl Presgraves said GLSEN believes the language in the two D.C. bills would not violate students’ civil liberties. But he said GLSEN and others supporting the bills would be open to making changes if the ACLU demonstrates that the language would prevent students from expressing their opinions in a way that doesn’t cross the line of true bullying and harassment.

Trina Cole, a male to female transgender student who graduated in 2009 from D.C.’s Dunbar Senior High School, told the hearing she was victimized by harassment and intimidation that went far beyond hurting her feelings.

“At school, I was often both verbally and physically abused,” she said. “We need to have more support in our schools so that the bullying that I went through does not continue to happen every day.”

Cole testified on behalf of Metro Teen AIDS, a D.C.-based group that provides services to LGBT youth at risk for HIV.

Ginnie Cooper, chief librarian for the city’s public library system; Jesus Auguirre, director of the Department of Parks and Recreation; and Mark Farley, vice president of the Office of Human Resources for the University of the District of Columbia each expressed strong support for the two bills.

A spokesperson for the D.C. public schools did not appear before the hearing. Gray said the person expected to testify had a scheduling conflict and was expected to submit written testimony within the next week.

Gay activist and ANC commissioner-elect Bob Summersgill noted that the D.C. Public Schools currently use city-adopted regulations pertaining to student discipline as a basis for addressing bullying and harassment of students. A provision of the city’s Human Rights Act and a March 2000 directive by the then D.C. schools superintendent are also used as a patchwork of rules or laws to address bullying.

“The limitations in all of these laws and regulations are the implementation and enforcement,” Summersgill told the hearing. “If a school fails to make clear that bullying will not be tolerated, or if a teacher or staff fails to intervene when bullying occurs, or if a teacher or staff makes a derogatory comment or through inaction shows their distaste for some group, then they are tacitly giving approval of bullying and harassment,” he said.

Michael Musante, an official with Friends of Choice in Urban Schools (FOCUS), which advocates for D.C.’s public charter schools, said the group did not support the proposed legislation, saying charter schools were formed as semi-autonomous institutions independent from city control.

He said many charter schools already have anti-bullying polices and said charter schools prefer to address bullying through school disciplinary codes rather than “one-size-fits-all legislation.”

Gray and Council member Michael Brown, speaking after the hearing, said they favor including charter schools in the legislation before the Council.

“They have over 30,000 of our kids being educated with public money,” Gray said of the charter schools.

Others who testified in favor of the bills at the hearing included Renee Reopell, program associate for the D.C. LGBT community center; Peter Rosenstein, LGBT community activist; Rick Rosendall, vice president of the Gay & Lesbian Activists Alliance; Bill Briggs, executive director of Metro D.C. Parents, Families and Friends of Lesbians and Gays (PFLAG); and Andrew Barnett, executive director of Sexual Minority Youth Assistance League (SMYAL).

Lou Chibbaro Jr. has reported on the LGBT civil rights movement and the LGBT community for more than 30 years, beginning as a freelance writer and later as a staff reporter and currently as Senior News Reporter for the Washington Blade. He has chronicled LGBT-related developments as they have touched on a wide range of social, religious, and governmental institutions, including the White House, Congress, the U.S. Supreme Court, the military, local and national law enforcement agencies and the Catholic Church. Chibbaro has reported on LGBT issues and LGBT participation in local and national elections since 1976. He has covered the AIDS epidemic since it first surfaced in the early 1980s. Follow Lou

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