As the Democratic lead of the Education and Cultural Affairs Committee, I have yet to hear a sensible explanation for the failure of the Republican-controlled Legislature to pass anti-bullying legislation last month.

I was pleased, in the case of LD 1237, to take part in a very thorough, thoughtful, fair and bipartisan public hearing process. Our committee, guided by the committee chairs Rep. David Richardson, R-Carmel, and Sen. Brian Langley, R-Hancock, listened to hours of public testimony.

We deliberated the issues, including the potential impact on local school districts and free speech issues, in public work sessions. We heard concerns from many interested parties and the committee worked together in a bipartisan fashion to create an amended version of the bill.

Ultimately, the committee passed a bill that would have Education Commissioner Stephen Bowen develop a model harassment, intimidation and bullying prevention policy. School districts would have to adopt a policy based on that model by Aug. 15 of next year.

Most schools already have some bullying policies in place and, if they already meet the standards as developed by the Department of Education, then no further action on the part of those school administrations would be required.

For those districts that don’t yet have such policies in place, most of the work would have been done by Commissioner Bowen. The school administration and school boards would only have had to tailor the policy to their schools and take the actions necessary to make it official.

While bullying has always taken place in all types of schools and other public institutions from time immemorial, we are all probably aware that new technology and social norms, especially broad access to “social network” services online, have led to new and different challenges in dealing with unusually cruel and sadistic peers.

In 2010, there were at least 14 suicides resulting from bullying nationally. The National Education Association estimates that 160,000 children miss school every day due to fear of attack or intimidation by other students. More than 70 percent of students report incidents of bullying as a problem at their school and almost 60 percent of students have personally witnessed some type of bullying at school.

One of our Republican colleagues spoke passionately about the painful experience of seeing her child suffer from the cruelty of bullying from classmates. Her testimony and the testimony of other parents and school-age children did have a dramatic impact on the members of the committee and other legislators. I believe these real-life accounts were a big part of why the bill received unanimous support in the House and the support of all but six Republican senators in the Senate and the verbal support of the governor.

Unfortunately, after the Christian Civic League sent out an action alert to its followers and contacted Republican leadership, some members of the Republican House caucus voted against the same bill they had previously supported.

The crux of the concern put forth by the opponents of this bill was that cruelty and bigotry directed at students based on their sexual orientation would be considered bullying within this legislation. They have publicly said they don’t like the bill because people who believe in equality for gay men and lesbians actually took part in drafting the original bill.

This is unacceptable and should not be hidden behind supposed concerns about free speech. All parties understood the concerns about freedom of speech throughout the deliberations on this bill. That is why the bill very clearly defines “bullying” and “cyber bullying.” It also clearly and strictly limits the scope of the school administrations’ responsibility and authority.

In fact, the Maine Civil Liberties Union, the most well-respected and outspoken advocates in Maine for freedom of speech as outlined in the U.S. Constitution, fully support this legislation.

The right to be a bully, or go out of your way to make another person feel fearful or belittled should never be considered to be equal to the right to be treated with respect and feel safe in our public institutions. I hope all reasonable people can agree with that.

The anti-bullying bill was just one of many important issues considered by the Education Committee this session.

I feel positive about the hard work we did together in a bipartisan fashion, and am committed to doing my part to assure that continues next year. Hopefully, in January, we won’t waste more taxpayer dollars and will quickly send this to the governor for his signature.

Rep. Richard Wagner represents part of Lewiston in the Maine House of Representatives and is the lead House Democrat on the Education and Cultural Affairs Committee.


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