AUGUSTA, Maine — A bill that toughens Maine’s stance on bullying in schools won legislative approval this week after months of revisions.
The measure, LD 1237, provides educators and administrators with a clear definition of bullying, explicitly forbids bullying behavior, offers schools alternative discipline strategies, and outlines prevention policies and training for teachers.
Existing Maine law required that bullying be addressed in a student code of conduct, which supporters of the bill said led to inconsistencies statewide.
Children’s advocates, civil liberties groups, religious organizations and teachers cheered the bill’s passage late Wednesday in the House and Senate.
“Teachers know firsthand that students can’t learn if they’re scared to be in school. This bill will help make sure that all kids feel safe in their classrooms and can focus on learning,” Chris Galgay, president of the Maine Education Association, said in a press release.
The Christian Civic League of Maine, which criticized the version of the bill introduced last spring as a threat to students’ free speech, supported it after extensive reworking by the Legislature’s Education Committee.
Carroll Conley Jr., the league’s executive director and a former school headmaster, said his organization was gratified to see new language that protects students’ First Amendment rights.
Opposition last year also included the Alliance Defense Fund, a national group that has opposed same-sex marriage and equal rights for gays and lesbians.
The legislation’s sponsor, Rep. Terry Morrison, D-South Portland, said in January that some had unfortunately characterized the measure as a “gay bill.” Morrison, who is openly gay, said at the time that the bill was aimed at protecting kids who are frightened to go to school.
“This bill will make a real and positive difference in the lives of all of our students. While many schools in Maine are doing good work, this bill would ensure that all students are protected no matter what community they live in,” Mary L. Bonauto, an attorney with Gay and Lesbian Advocates and Defenders, said in the release.
The bill also was revised to give schools flexibility in crafting anti-bullying policies, said Zachary Heiden, legal director for the American Civil Liberties Union of Maine. The state Education Department will develop a model policy with recommendations from schools, provided the bill wins Gov. Paul LePage’s signature, he said.
“Schools are going to be able to work on these issues on their own with their individual policies,” Heiden said.
Nearly 48 percent of Maine middle school students and 23 percent of high schoolers in Maine report being bullied on school property, according to the 2009 Maine Integrated Youth Health Survey. About 40 percent of middle schoolers and 18 percent of high school students in the state were bullied away from school.