AUGUSTA — After the Legislature's Education Committee voted unanimously to pass a new anti-bullying bill, Marc Mutty of the Roman Catholic Diocese of Portland reached out and shook the hand of the bill's sponsor, Rep. Terry Morrison, D-South Portland.
It was a brief exchange, an easily overlooked moment.
But to Morrison, who is openly gay, the handshake with Mutty, who has worked on campaigns to oppose same-sex marriage, was a big deal. Morrison said he never wanted his bill, LD 1237, to be about him or his sexuality. However, Morrison believes that's exactly what happened last year when his bill, initially slated for strong bipartisan approval, was carried over to the current abbreviated session.
Morrison cited an action alert by the Christian Civic League of Maine, which described the bill as part of the gay agenda. That alert, he said, played a key role in derailing the proposal.
"I knew after that happened that I had to change the conversation," Morrison said. "This bill isn't about me, or the LGBT (lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender) community. It's about protecting all children who are afraid of going to school because of bullying."
There were also technical reasons that the bill was held up, specifically a mandate that school districts adopt model harassment, intimidation and bullying policies.
The mandate still exists in the amended proposal unanimously endorsed by the Education Committee on Tuesday. However, Morrison and advocates believe the provision can be overcome.
The amended bill, which was worked by stakeholders, including the Maine Principals Association and ACLU of Maine, is designed to strengthen the state's current harassment law by providing a clear definition of bullying, an explicit prohibition on bullying behavior, a range of alternative discipline strategies for schools and prevention and accountability policies for teachers and school administrators.
Advocates say the bill will align Maine's anti-bullying law with that of 47 other states.
Current Maine law requires only that bullying is defined in a school's student code of conduct.
The CCL had expressed concerns that the bill would infringe upon students' free speech rights. The amended version contains language that ensures that First Amendment rights are protected.
Alysia Melnick, of the ACLU of Maine, said the proposal struck an appropriate balance "that protects student safety and freedom of speech."
In a statement, Melnick added, "We can reduce bullying in school without undermining our fundamental civil liberties."
Rep. Michael McClellan, R-Raymond, was among the lawmakers who worried the bill went too far. McClellan said the amended version was an improvement, but that it may not be the silver bullet to stop bullying.
"This is a good day," he said. "However, it doesn’t solve the problem. The real change comes from families and the people in this room."
The proposal is supported by the Maine Children's Alliance, the Gay & Lesbian Advocates & Defenders and the Maine Education Association.
"All Maine children deserve to be safe at school. This bill provides meaningful guidelines that will help prevent bullying,” said Ned McCann, vice president of the Maine Children’s Alliance.
"Watching my friends be bullied because of who they are is simply unbearable,” said MaKayla Reed, a senior at Ellsworth High School who testified in support of the bill last year. "LD 1237 will ensure that all students will be safe in their schools, and with the epidemic of bullying on the rise, that is a breath of fresh air."
It's unclear if Gov. Paul LePage will support the bill. However, the governor said last year that "every school ought to have a woodshed and the bullies should be brought to the woodshed."
The governor has also taken a tough stand on child abuse and domestic violence.
LePage was preparing for his State of the State address on Tuesday. His staff did not respond to a request for comment.