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Failure of anti-bullying measure upsets Rep. Anastasia Pittman and state equality group

Staff Report


An anti-bullying bill failed to gain passage during closing days of the 2011 legislative session. State Rep. Anastasia said the vote in the Oklahoma House was in fact a failure for state students.

In the absence of new policy on cyber-bullying, Rep. Pittman said she will plead with state Superintendent of Public Instruction Janet Barresi to implement administrative changes to improve current rules.

House Bill 1461 would have added cyber-bullying to the state’s definition of bullying and required school districts to have an anti-bullying policy.

“Every day too many of our youth, scarred by relentless harassment and intimidation, suffer cruelty in silence or take extreme measures to avoid the abuse, which at times, tragically, has led to them taking their own lives or retaliating and taking the lives of others,” said Pittman, an Oklahoma City Democrat. “I am incredibly disappointed at the lack of support this bill received, as it denotes a lack of understanding of the very real problem that is occurring in our classrooms.”

The Oklahoman, citing statistics from the Oklahoma State Department of Education, reported there were during the 2009-10 school year “15,967 incidents of bullying and 648 of those resulted in physical injury.”

The measure by Rep. Lee Denney, a Cushing Republican, had received bipartisan support. In final debate, however, opponents argued the bill would create an additional mandate on schools, and that parents, students, teachers and administrators can recognize bullying without further training or mandates. Proponents, including Denney, argued the measure would help address the issue of cyber-bullying, as well as increasing enforcement.

Bullying was examined closely by legislators in the wake of 11-year old Perkins resident Ty Fields’ suicide that came after bullying incidents.

“The defeat of this bill is particularly disappointing, given it has been only a little more than one year after Ty Fields’ death,” Pittman stated. She noted that this spring, members of her church “observed the anniversary of Ty’s death with a silent walk at my church. … I was joined at that event by the parents of other children from across the nation who are grappling with this issue.”

Kirk Smalley, the father of Ty Fields, countered statements from foes of the measure who said everyone should “follow the Golden Rule”. Smalley said, “Yes, everyone should ‘follow the Golden Rule’, but this was help for those that don’t live that way. … Our children and their safety come first. We are required to send our kids to school. … Why does the law not require them to be protected from this abuse while there?”

Pittman said, “We had the opportunity to increase local control and grant our public schools more authority to deal with bullying problems. Those who argued that this was a legislative mandate missed the mark, and we missed the opportunity to help thousands of children in need. My heart hurts for the families who were looking to the Legislature to help them.”

At the start of the 2011 session, measures to combat bullying trends were introduced by Denney, Pittman and state Sen. Andrew Rice.

Denney’s bill progressed through the process and seemed headed for passage. After stripping the bill of enumerated categories of protection, the House had passed H.B. 1461 by a 74-23 vote on March 8. With Republican Sen. James Halligan of Stillwater as Denney’s co-author, the bill traveled to the Senate Public Safety Committee. After changes to delete school district liability, the Senate passed the bill 43-0 on April 13.

However, the shift against the amended bill on May 17, when the House voted 52-44 against the conference committee report reconciling differences between the chambers, killed it for 2011.

After that vote, “The Equality Network,” based in Tulsa, issued its own statement decrying the demise of H.B. 1461.

Kathy L. Williams, president of the group, lamented the defeat in a statement sent to The City Sentinel: “This is really sad news for Oklahoma’s students. Each day, students are physically attacked and verbally terrorized in our schools. It is disgraceful that our legislators refused to pass even this watered-down bill to help administrators, teachers, parents, and students create safer schools. No one can learn in a climate of fear.”

Williams said a study of state policy by Oklahoma State University Professor Sue Jacobs and a team of graduate students found that 20 of the state’s 500+ districts include sexual orientation in policies protecting students. Of these, only Oklahoma City and Union districts also include gender identity.

Williams and members of The Equality Network point to suicides related to the bullying of lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) youth as an argument in favor of additional laws. New anti-bullying bills were debated this year not only in Oklahoma but also in Arkansas, Texas and Missouri.

Anti-bullying rallies are tentatively scheduled for late August in Oklahoma with a nationwide effort in the fall.

Note: Senior Editor Patrick B. McGuigan contributed to this report.

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