by Bob Geary
By a 59-57 vote, the N.C. House tonight approved the School Violence Protection Act, or anti-bullying bill -- Senate Bill 526 -- on second reading. Final passage requires a second vote (aka, a third reading) in the House, which should come in a day or so.
(Update, 6/22: How members voted here.)
(Update, 6/23: Because the losing side asked for it, a second House vote was needed to pass the bill. It was conducted today, following another lengthy debate marked this time by a series of failed Republican amendments, and the tally in favor was 58-57.)
SB 526 previously passed the Senate. (Background on the Senate action here.) Gov. Bev Perdue is expected to sign it if and when it reaches her desk. The bill would require every school district to adopt an anti-bullying policy that spells out who's most likely to need protection from bullying and the "strategies and methods" that will be used to protect them.
If enacted, the bill would offer gays and transgender citizens recognition in state law for the first time: The bill's enumeration of the categories of kids who must be protected from bullying includes race, creed and -- for the first time -- sexual orientation and gender identity.
Rep. Darren Jackson, D-Wake, provided the most dramatic moment in a 90-minute long debate preceding passage. (His full statement is worth your time and is appended below the fold.) Jackson read a letter from a parent complaining that her autistic child is bullied because he's different. (Autism is another enumerated category in the bill.)
Jackson went on to say that the issue isn't some "cultural war" clash, as far as he's concerned, but rather is very personal. He described a 10-year old boy who's been called "sissy," "homo" and other names because he's small, likes to dance and likes the color pink. That child, he said, "should be free to be what God made him," and indeed, at 10, he doesn't yet know what he is.
Controlling his emotions, Jackson said that when the session ended, he'd go home and kiss that 10-year old boy good night. "And if that costs me my seat in this chamber, so be it."
Opponents of the bill, including virtually every Republican, argued that the best way to protect kids from bullying is simply to outlaw it without regard to specific categories of kids.
House Minority Leader Paul Stam, R-Wake, predicted that the language about sexual orientation, though ostensibly only about children, will be used in North Carolina some day -- as it was in Iowa by the Iowa Supreme Court -- to support an equal-rights decision in favor of same-sex marriages.
But Rep. Mickey Michaux, D-Durham, countered that argument with some civil rights history. The nation was founded on the principle that "All men are created equal," he recalled. Later, all men was redefined to mean all men and women too. But discrimination against people based on their religion and race continued, Michaux said, until it was specifically barred by law. "So what's wrong with identifying the people who are subject to being harmed, or discriminated against? Michaux asked.
Rep. Darren Jackson, D-Wake:
Thank you, Mr. Speaker. I got a letter from a constituent that I’d like to read a little bit about tonight in this forum. She wrote, I am the mother of a son with autism. I truly cannot comprehend the reluctance of any legislator to pass this bill. Bullies do exist, and they make life miserable for those unable to defend themselves. In a civilized society, why do we allow this?
My son is bright but different. Eccentric some would say. Unfortunately, this difference can be the catalyst for teasing and taunting, sometimes in a subtle form, and sometimes in more flagrant acts involving an emotional and physical violation. I know all too well that children can be cruel. It’s up to the adults in their lives to teach them acceptance and tolerance. Students learn more than academics in school, and part of their education should include how to treat others with respect and dignity and look to peers for support, not how to dodge a fist.
We can begin the process of tolerance tonight by taking a stand against bullying for any reason. I know some of you in this chamber have been having these culture wars for many years. This bill is not about that. At least it shouldn’t be, and it’s not for me. Instead, it’s personal, and I apologize for that.
Friends, God didn’t make us all exactly alike. Sometimes these perceived differences lead to bullying. Maybe the victim is a girl in middle school who is larger than her male counterparts, and likes sports, and is called a tomboy – or worse. Maybe it’s a disabled child with autism who’s called freak, weirdo, or even much worse names and is physically assaulted at school. Maybe it’s your child, your grandchild, your neice or nephew.
Or maybe the victim is a 10-year old little boy who just finished the 5th grade. Maybe he’s real small for his age, the smallest in his class. Maybe he doesn’t like contact sports, but instead loves to dance and sing and perform in the school production. He’s a natural. Maybe he’s a fan of soft colors and likes to wear pink, like his dad. Maybe he’s blessed to have his mother’s good looks and beautiful skin and soft facial features. Maybe he likes to hang out with girls because he’s not rough enough for the boys.
Maybe because of all these things, he’s called sissy boy, gay, homo or even worse.
Perhaps his father is absolutely terrified of what middle school and high school will have in store for such a wonderful little boy. Maybe his parents or his teachers tried to teach him not to act a certain way or to talk about certain interests in front of other boys because it just leads to more bullying. You might say that they encourage him to hide his true personality. And why? Shouldn’t he be free to be himself? He’s not hurting anyone. He should be free to be what God made him. He’s 10. He doesn’t know what he is.
This bill simply says that no child should be bullied even if they are perceived to be poor, or disabled or maybe different. This bill’s about protecting kids; at least, it is for me. If this bill prevents one suicide, or one school violence episode, then it’s a success. If this bill is passed, then it will be a step forward for protecting children – maybe even one close to you.
If you’re going to vote no against this bill, at least be honest with yourself about why you’re doing it.
I’m going to count my vote as yes. And when my daughter and I, who’s serving as page this week, go out to eat and go home tonight, I’m going to go see her little brother, who’ll be in bed asleep. I’m going to lean across that bed and kiss my 10-year old goodnight. And I’m going to know that I voted the right way, the way to protect him and other children like him. And if that costs me my seat in this chamber, then so be it.
I hope you’ll join me in voting yes.