April 26, 2012 | by Lou Chibbaro Jr.
D.C. anti-bullying bill clears key vote
Tommy Wells, gay news, gay politics dc

‘The bill delivers a strong message that this city will not tolerate bullying – especially for our LGBT youth,’ said Council member Tommy Wells. (Washington Blade photo by Michael Key)

A D.C. Council committee voted unanimously on April 20 to approve the Youth Bullying Prevention Act of 2012 and to send it to the full Council for an expected preliminary vote on May 1.

“The bill delivers a strong message that this city will not tolerate bullying – especially for our LGBT youth – in our schools, libraries, recreation centers and where the city serves its youth,” said Council member Tommy Wells (D-Ward 6).

Wells is chair of the Council’s Committee on Libraries, Parks, Recreation and Planning, which worked with the mayor’s office and LGBT advocates over the past year to make significant revisions to the bill before voting to approve it last week.

With the city facing an expected budget shortfall next year, Wells and his fellow committee members were faced with the need to make changes to lower the cost of implementing the bill.

The revised version of the bill, for example, eliminates a provision in the earlier version that stated, “To the extent that funds are appropriated for these purposes,” various city agencies, including the public school system, “shall provide training on the agency’s harassment, intimidation or bullying policies to employees and volunteers who have significant contact with students or the public…”

The revised bill approved by the committee says the public schools and other city agencies “may … provide training on bullying prevention to all employees and volunteers who have significant contact with youth.”

Alison Gill, public policy manager for the Gay, Lesbian and Straight Education Network, or GLSEN, which worked with Wells’ office to help revise the bill, said the training requirement in the earlier version of the bill was contingent upon the availability of city funds and the elimination of that provision would have a minimal impact on the overall bill.

“I think it’s excellent,” Gill said of the revised bill. “The new bill addresses the issues the community had raised over the past year.”

Among those issues, Gill said, was the need to broaden the definition of bullying from the original bill to include all of the categories of individuals protected under the D.C. Human Rights Act and the need to strengthen the reporting requirements for schools and city agencies to keep track of bullying incidents.

The committee vote came just over one week after Mayor Vincent Gray announced he would put into place a citywide anti-bullying initiative through his executive authority as mayor. His proposal includes the creation of a special task force on bullying and the development of a model anti-bullying policy and standards to be used by city agencies with jurisdiction over youth.

The legislation approved by Wells’ committee, among other things, also calls for creating a bullying task force and developing a comprehensive anti-bullying policy for city agencies.

Gill said the mayor’s task force and bullying polices would be adopted as those required under the bill, with an expected smooth transition once the bill becomes law.

Eleven of the Council’s 13 members signed on as co-introducers or co-sponsors of the earlier version of the bill. Supporters say the new version is expected to pass the full Council by an overwhelming margin.

A summary of the bill’s provisions released by Wells’ office says the measure includes these key components:

• The establishment and implementation of a bullying prevention policy, including reporting and investigation guidelines, that specifically covers all youth, including youth of color, LGBT youth, and youth with disabilities.

• The establishment of an appeal process for a party dissatisfied with the outcome of an initial investigation of a bullying incident.

• A clear prohibition against retaliation against a target of bullying, a witness to a bullying incident, or someone who reports an incident of bullying.

• The granting of legal immunity from lawsuits against an employee, volunteer or youth who “in good faith” reports an incident of bullying.

The bill defines bullying as “any severe, persistent act or conduct, whether physical, electronic, or verbal that … shall be reasonably predicted to place the youth in reasonable fear of physical harm to his or her person or property; cause a substantial detrimental effect on the youth’s physical or mental health; substantially interfere with the youth’s academic performance or attendance; or substantially interfere with the youth’s ability to participate in or benefit from the services, activities, or privileges provided by an agency, educational institution, or grantee.”

It defines “grantee” as an entity or contractor that provides services, activities or privileges to youth on behalf of the city.

Wells said at the time the committee voted to approve the bill that a financial impact statement prepared by the Office of the Chief Financial Officer shows that implementing the measure would cost the public school system $36,000 in fiscal year 2014 and $31,000 in both fiscal years 2015 and 2016.

Wells said public school officials indicated the system “cannot absorb this amount,” requiring that the Council and mayor identify other sources of funding.

Wells’ office said last month that an inability to identify funding sources for the bill was among the reasons it has been stalled in committee for more than a year. The revised bill is believed to be far less costly than the earlier version.

“I am confident we will resolve this issue before the bill has its first reading at the full Council,” Wells said.

The committee members who voted to approve the bill, in addition to Wells, were David Catania (I-At-Large), Phil Mendelson (D-At-Large) and Vincent Orange (D-At-Large).

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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