In the last legislative session, a bill to reduce bullying in schools was approved overwhelmingly in both houses. LD 1237 was straightforward and important: “This bill requires each school administrative unit to adopt, by August 15, 2012, a harassment, intimidation and bullying prevention policy based upon a model policy developed by the Commissioner of Education in conjunction with an advisory committee composed of representatives of parents, guardians, teachers, school employees, volunteers, students, administrators, community representatives, the Maine School Superintendents Association, the Maine Principals’ Association and other interested parties. Harassment, intimidation and bullying prevention policies must be posted on the publicly accessible portions of the Department of Education’s website and the respective school administrative unit’s website.”
This legislation would increase safety and improve the learning environment for all students in Maine schools. It would include electronic bullying that is emerging as a new threat to ordinary students. The bill would also provide necessary resources for students who are especially vulnerable to bullying, including students with disabilities and those with perceived minority characteristics including those who may be assumed to be bisexual, gay, lesbian and transgender.
Apparently it was the last-minute opposition of the Christian Civic League of Maine that led to this legislation being effectively tabled for further action. Its June 27 Christian Civic League Action Alert urged opposition to “this very dangerous Anti-Bullying Bill for those holding Christian values.” In a column in the Bangor Daily News on July 7, Carroll Conley, Jr. noted that, “I was 5 feet 1 inch tall in ninth grade and was the victim of bullying; there were days I did not want to go to school. I hate bullying.” As executive director of the Christian Civic League of Maine, Conley spearheaded the effort to table the bill at the last minute on the grounds that it would limit freedom of speech, is unnecessary, did not require parental notification and he believed it was drafted by a civil rights lawyer whose “agenda promotes ideology.”
As a Maine psychologist, I am concerned about those students who are victims of bullying, whether it be because of their stature, ethnicity, disability, weight, academic interests, gender identity or perceived sexual orientation. Maine psychologists are especially concerned about those students who are most at risk of physical and psychological harm as a result of bullying. Several recent suicides associated with bullying and harassment in schools dramatize the immediate importance of this anti-bullying legislation.
Considerable psychological research indicates that an educational environment that supports acceptance, understanding and respect for individual diversity is required to reduce the tolerance of bullying and harassment, but a simple school policy is not sufficient. The solution to the issue is exactly the one specified in the legislation: a model policy created with the buy-in of all interested parties, a policy that is publicized and visible to all concerned and one that is based on the best information about the most effective responses to reduce bullying and harassment in the school setting.
Maine psychologists agree with the majority of the Maine Legislature that this bill is necessary, that it advances the schools’ skills in reducing and managing the pernicious effects of bullying, whether it be physically at the school or by electronic means, and that a safe educational environment for all Maine students is not an ideological issue. It is an issue of protecting the lives of all our children, including children holding Christian values.
The Maine Psychological Association testified in favor of the original bill and we strongly urge the Legislature to pass LD 1237 when it reconvenes. We also urge all Maine schools and parents to participate in this process of developing a model policy to reduce bullying and harassment. As written, the legislation clearly invites community representatives and other interested parties in this process, which would include persons of all ideological perspectives.
Douglas Kimmel of Hancock is a member of the policy council of the Maine Psychological Association and chair of the group’s committee on peace and justice.