Colorado GOP women senators back bullying bill

The three Republican women in the Colorado state Senate this year have voted as a bloc in support of at least two big family-protection bills that their male Republican colleagues have opposed. Weeks ago, Sens Ellen Roberts, Nancy Spence and Jean White argued passionately from the right in favor of same-sex civil unions as a way to bolster families headed by gay couples. The senators argued again passionately this week in favor of legislation that would combat school bullying, which can sink child confidence with tragic results and tear up families.

HB 1254 (pdf) passed in the House in March and in the Senate on Thursday. It is now headed to the governor’s desk for a signature.

In voting for the bill Senator White from Hayden said the fact that thousands of bullied kids avoid attending classes in Colorado in 2011 is “ridiculous.” In casting her vote, she said her own children, like so many, were bullied for things they had no control over.

“I think that every single day children are bullied to the point of turning into hypochondriacs because they need an excuse to stay home from school,” she said. “They’re bullied for all kinds of reasons at all levels. They’re bullied for their sexual orientation, for being fat, for being too tall, for having pimples. Our children were bullied for being adopted. Our children were bullied for living in a big house. It’s ridiculous. Kids need to know that when they go to school they have a safe environment that they can learn in and they don’t have to feel like they need an excuse to stay home from school.”

Centennial Republican Nancy Spence said the move to put more responsibility on adult school faculty and staff to prevent bullying was long overdue.

“[W]e heard testimony in committee where teachers ignore instances of bullying, such as hitting and kicking and shoving and pushing,” she said. “That’s another reason this bill is important. There needs to be a message given to staff at our school that bullying is no longer acceptable, if it ever was…. This bill is going to protect children and get a message to teachers that bullying will not be tolerated.”

A bipartisan problem

The bipartisan bill was sponsored in the House by Reps Sue Schafer, D-Wheat Ridge, and Kevin Priola, R-Henderson, and in the Senate by Pat Steadman, D-Denver. Its authors introduced it in the wake of a spate of tragic news stories from around the country detailing the fact that bullying was an ongoing source of youth suicide coast to coast. Schafer and Priola told the press they wrote the bill in order to head off a “sensational suicide” in Colorado.

Sens Roberts, Spence and White were joined by all of the Senate Democrats and Republican Steve King in voting in favor of the bill. The Republican-controlled House passed the bill with 47 aye votes and 18 nays.

Colorado has led in the nation in working to limit bullying ever since the 1999 Columbine shootings. Among the programs put in place is a successful phone and texting hotline that encourages kids to anonymously report trouble.

Supporters of HB 1254, however, say putting much of the onus on kids to intervene 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

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, which translates to 12,000 teen students. 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.

New-style conservative family values

Months ago voting in favor of same-sex civil unions, Ellen Roberts spoke for the women Republicans in the Senate when she said that the fact is gay people are having kids and that current state law does not protect them. There is no law providing for arrangements in the case of break ups. There are no child support and visitation laws that cover gay couples, she pointed out. She told the Colorado Independent she tried to talk about these reasons to support the bill among the Senate GOP caucus but to mostly no avail.

The men, she said “had different ideas.”

Forty-one women were sworn into the Colorado legislature this year, making up the largest percentage of women serving at any state capitol in the nation. There are 17 women in the 35-member Senate. There are 24 women serving in the 65-member House.

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