May 5, 2011 at 6:08 pm EDT | by Lou Chibbaro Jr.
D.C. Council urged to strengthen anti-bullying bill

Council members Muriel Bowser (D-Ward 4) and David Catania (I-At-Large). (Blade photo by Michael Key)

At least eight witnesses representing LGBT organizations told a D.C. City Council committee on Monday that an anti-bullying bill introduced in January is an important first step in addressing the problem of bullying and harassment in the city’s schools, parks and libraries.

But the LGBT representatives – as well as other witnesses – testified that the Bullying and Intimidation Prevention Act of 2011 lacks sufficient implementation and accountability provisions needed to ensure its effective enforcement.

“It does not benefit students to pass a new anti-bullying law unless there are real accountability standards and implementation processes in place,” said Alison Gill, public policy manager for the Gay Lesbian and Straight Education Network (GLSEN), a national group that advocates for LGBT-supportive polices in the nation’s schools.

“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,” Gill said.

Gill and the other witnesses spoke before the Council’s Committee on Libraries, Parks and Recreation, one of two committees with jurisdiction over the anti-bullying bill.

While saying bullying and harassment is a serious problem that affects all young people, they pointed to studies showing that the problem has had a greater impact on LGBT youth.

“Bullying and harassment has often increased adverse effects on marginalized students, including those who identify as lesbian, gay, bisexual, or transgender,” Gill told the committee.

“According to GLSEN’s 2009 National School Climate Survey, nearly nine out of 10 LGBT students experience verbal or physical harassment in school,” she said. “Thirty percent missed at least one day of school in the past month because they felt unsafe or uncomfortable.”

The bill requires the city’s public and charter schools, the Department of Parks and Recreation, the city’s public libraries, and the University of the District of Columbia to adopt “a policy prohibiting harassment, intimidation or bullying” in their respective facilities, buildings and grounds.

Others testifying in support of the bill and calling for adding various strengthening provisions included Andrew Barnett, executive director of the Sexual Minority Youth Assistance League (SMYAL); Amy Morgan of the D.C. Trans Coalition; Adam Tenner, executive director of Metro Teen AIDS; Annie Kaplan, president of the Trial Lawyers Association of Metropolitan D.C.; Rick Rosendall, vice president of the Gay & Lesbian Activists Alliance; Bob Summersgill, Ward 3 Advisory Neighborhood Commissioner and former GLAA president; and Christopher Dyer, former director of the Mayor’s Office of LGBT Affairs.

Also expressing support for the bill were Chad Ferguson, director of the Office of Youth Engagement for D.C. Public Schools; Jesus Aguirre, director of the Department of Parks and Recreation; and Micki Freeny, coordinator of children’s services for the D.C. public library system.

Most of these witnesses — but not the three government officials — called on the Council to add these new provisions to the bill:

• A required reporting system to keep track of incidents of bullying and harassment that would allow the city to gather data on the prevalence and types of harassment and bullying incidents and how well the law is working to curtail such incidents.

• An improved and strengthened implementation provision that, among other things, creates an implementation task force consisting of community advocates and officials from affected city agencies.

• The bill’s definition of bullying, intimidation and harassment should be broadened to include the full list of protected groups and characteristics in the D.C. Human Rights Act. In addition, the bill should include protections against bullying and harassment targeting people for who they associate with.

“Students may experience bullying not based on who they are, but based on the people that they associate with and therefore need to be explicitly protected for this reason,” GLSEN’s Gill said in her testimony.

The bill has been assigned to the Council’s Committee of the Whole in addition to the Committee on Libraries, Parks and Recreation. The Committee of the Whole, whose ranks include all 13 Council members, has jurisdiction over the city’s public and charter school systems and plays a role in deciding on all school-related legislation.

Council Chair Kwame Brown (D-At-Large), chair of the Committee of the Whole, is a co-introducer of the Bullying and Intimidation Prevention Act, along with Council member Jim Graham (D-Ward 1), who is gay; and Council members Harry Thomas (D-Ward 5) and Michael Brown (D-At-Large).

Council member Muriel Bowser (D-Ward 4), chair of the Committee on Libraries, Parks and Recreation, which held Monday’s hearing, is a co-sponsor of the bill along with six other Council members, including gay Council member David Catania (I-At-Large).

City Hall observers say support for the bill on the Council is overwhelming. With Mayor Vincent Gray saying he would sign the measure, there’s little doubt that some form of an anti-bullying bill will clear the city’s legislative process this year and make its way to Capitol Hill for final clearance by Congress.

The LGBT advocates who testified at Monday’s hearing said their main objective is to persuade the Council to adopt the proposed changes they have submitted in the form of one or more amendments to the bill.

“Thank you for your testimony, which has been tremendously helpful,” Bowser told several of the witnesses, including those representing LGBT organizations.

Catania, who was the only other committee member to attend the hearing, also praised the witnesses and expressed support for a comprehensive anti-bullying bill “with teeth.”

Bowser said she and her Council colleagues were open to the suggestions and recommendations of the witnesses but made no commitment to adopt the proposed changes.

The legislation 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…”

The definition says that in order to be considered harassment, intimidation or bullying under the bill’s school-related provisions, the act in question must be understood by a “reasonable person” to have the “effect of harming or damaging the student’s property, or placing a student in reasonable fear of harm to his person or damage to his property…”

It says an act can be labeled as harassment, intimidation or bullying if it has the “effect of insulting or demeaning any student or group of students in such as a way as to cause substantial disruption in, or substantial interference with, the orderly operation of a school, university, recreation facility, or library.”

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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