Colorado school bullying bill passes out of committee; Bennet championing cause in DC

After hours of emotional testimony at the capitol Wednesday, the Colorado House Education Committee Wednesday voted 9 to 4 in favor of school-bullying prevention House Bill 1254 (pdf). The bill would revise anti-bullying guidelines and establish a board within the state Department of Education to revise rules of conduct and reporting and to raise money to pay for anti-bullying research and programs.

The bipartisan bill is sponsored by Representatives Sue Schafer, D-Wheat Ridge, and Kevin Priola, R-Henderson. They told the press they were looking to act preemptively to head off a “sensational suicide” in Colorado.

In Denver

Testimony in Denver included the wrenching story told by Jess Stolmann from Colorado Springs-based Inside / Out Youth Services. As a high school student, Stolmann was bullied because she was gay. Her books were stolen and defaced with gay slurs. She was attacked in the locker rooms. Teachers were almost no help because they seemed to seek to minimize the trouble instead of addressing it. They told Stolmann to dress for gym in another room. Unsurprisingly, Stolmann failed gym. She was attacked by boys and threatened with sexual assault. Finally, down and out and at wits end, she tried to commit suicide in the school bathroom, after which she was suspended for bringing a knife into the school.

Gay rights group OneColorado tweeted from the hearing that Republican Rep. Robert Ramirez was swayed by Stolmann’s brave testimony today to support the bill.

Colorado Springs Republican Janak Joshi voted against the bill, saying it established an “unfunded mandate,” even though the bill is written to bring in outside non-state and private funding to pay for its estimated $200,000 anti-bullying programs.

OneColorado joined a host of groups that included the Colorado Children’s Campaign and the Girl Scouts in supporting the bill.

In Colorado

As has become clear from mounting research and from regular installments of the news, stories like Stolmann’s are as common as they are horrifying. Children bullied like Stolmann was bullied are sad and isolated. Their grades suffer. They stay home from school. Some of them of course also tragically succeed at committing suicide. Today has been no different.

A scan of Google News brings reports that a gay teen this week overdosed on drugs in Minnesota as a result of bullying. Another bullied teen killed herself at home in her room in Pennsylvania. In Alabama the legislature passed a bill in response to the death of 15-year-old Alex Moore, who jumped from a busy interstate bridge after being constantly harassed at school.

As the Colorado Independent reported in December, according to a 2009 Healthy Kids Colorado survey (pdf), roughly 19 percent of all Colorado high school kids report being bullied. Roughly 30 percent say they have gotten into fights. Roughly 7 percent have been threatened with weapons. Last year more than 5 percent of all Colorado high schoolers stayed home from school for fear of bullying. That’s 12,000 teen students, and among certain demographic groups, the percentages soar. Linda Kanan, director of the Department of Public Safety’s School Safety Resource Center, told the Independent that roughly 37 percent of gay and transgender kids avoid school for fear of bullying.

That’s a very serious problem, Kanan said, harassment in general being a significant area she seeks to address as part of her office’s mission to help make schools safe. Kanan noted that all federal funding that went to individual school districts in the state for safe school projects was cut in 2009.

In fact, the preventive research and action HB 1254 would engender seem overdue given the priority Colorado has placed on preventing school bullying since the Columbine school shootings rocked the nation in 1999.

The state legislature a year later passed anti-bullying laws and statutes that outlined procedures and training programs to guard against school harassment and in 2008 the legislature set up Kanan’s four-person division within the state’s Public Safety Department to direct attention to the issue in a sustained and comprehensive way.

In 2010, Attorney General John Suthers released inspiring data from the Safe2Tell and Safe2Text programs, onetime nonprofit 24/7 anonymous hotlines embraced by the AG’s office and the Department of Public Safety.

In roughly the last five years, Colorado students have filed more than 2,700 reports concerning bullying, gangs and other problems through the program. The AG’s office reports that the tips have been crucial as a prevention, leading authorities to “intervene in thousands of potentially dangerous and life-threatening situations.” Since 2005, Safe2Tell tips have led to 284 school disciplinary actions, 67 arrests, 393 investigations and 344 counseling referrals.

Supporters of HB 1254, however, say putting the onus on kids to intervene in and report on bullying isn’t good enough. The bill puts more responsibility on adults to directly work to solve the problem. It establishes school codes of conduct and reporting and it establishes an interim committee of lawmakers to study school bullying in the state. It also creates a board to award grants to promising anti-bullying programs and to evaluate those programs.

In Washington

In Washington, Colorado U.S. Senator Michael Bennet will join President Obama, First Lady Michelle Obama and others at a White House Conference on Bullying Prevention Thursday.
Later this week Bennet plans to introduce a school bullying bill. He is also an original cosponsor with Colorado U.S. Sen. Mark Udall of a coming bill written to protect lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender students from discrimination. 

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