Bullying bill gets OK from Georgia House panel

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imageLegislation that provides a comprehensive definition of bullying in Georgia and mandates that school systems adopt policies banning it passed a key committee in the state House on Wednesday and could soon see action on the full House floor.

The measure, House Bill 927, includes bipartisan support, from Rep. Mike Jacobs – who wrote the legislation and is a gay-friendly Republican – to Rep. Karla Drenner, a Democrat and the first openly gay person elected to the General Assembly. The legislation was approved Wednesday by the House Judiciary Non-civil committee and moves to the Rules Committee, which could move it to a vote by the full House in the coming days. Read House Bill 927. (pdf)

“We hope the House Rules Committee will decide very quickly to put it on the agenda for a full vote of the House,” says Jeff Graham (photo), executive director of Georgia Equality. “If all goes as planned, we could see a vote by the House perhaps as early as next week.”

The legislation is one of two House bills that address bullying, a top priority of Georgia Equality for the General Assembly this year. The other proposal, House Bill 940, is from state Rep. Carolyn Hugley, a Democrat, and is being considered by the House Education committee. Read House Bill 940. (pdf)

Bullying gained widespread attention last year after an 11-year-old DeKalb County student, Jaheem Herrera, committed suicide after facing anti-gay taunts from classmates. A report from the school system later said Herrera was not bullied at his elementary school, despite reports from his mother and parents of classmates.

H.B. 927 offers a sweeping definition of bullying and mandates that local school systems develop anti-bullying policies by August 2011. It also directs the state Department of Education to develop a model policy about bullying by January 2011.

But the legislation does not include specific protected categories in its definition of bullying. Instead, it describes the act as threats of injury, displays of force used to intimidate a victim, or written, verbal and physical acts “which a reasonable person would perceive as being intended to threaten, harass, or intimidate.”

Hugley’s legislation, titled the Jaheem Herrera-Bianca Walton Safe School Climate Act, offers an expanded definition of bullying that includes acts motivated by race, color, religion, gender identity, sexual orientation and several other specific categories often used in non-discrimination and hate crimes legislation.

Graham says that although H.B. 927 does not offer protected categories, the legislation provides a more clear definition of bullying than current state law along with strong provisions for adopting anti-bullying policies on the state and local levels.

“It certainly is a vast improvement over the current law. While I certainly do feel that enumerated categories are important, the fact that there are no enumerated categories means that school districts can focus on the activities that define bullying,” Graham says.

He adds that Georgia Equality does support Hugley’s proposal, H.B. 940, but that the legislation does not include any Republican support – the General Assembly is controlled by the GOP — and isn’t gaining any traction in the legislative process. Hugley also supports H.B. 927.

“We hope there will be a committee hearing. We just don’t know that the bill will make it out of committee this session,” Graham says.

Graham says hard work still remains before Jacobs’ bill will see a full House vote and move to the Senate for consideration. He urged supporters to lobby their state lawmakers and make plans to attend two upcoming lobby days at the Gold Dome.

On March 10, Georgia Equality joins with other progressive groups for a lobby day on education issues, including the bullying legislation. On March 24, Georgia Equality hosts its annual lobby day that will include a brief training session before encouraging participants to meet with their own elected officials to discuss LGBT issues.

“It is going to take the vigilance of the entire community in terms of contacting their representatives and their state senators to make sure that the word gets out that this is a bill that people can support. The issue of bullying is an issue the state legislature must address and H.B. 927 will be the most effective way of doing that this session,” Graham says.

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