A scaled-down bid to curb bullying in public schools remains alive, and may well win final approval, largely because one Baton Rouge lawmaker had a change of heart.
Meanwhile, a bill that would require the teaching of sex education in public schools is likely dead for the session because another Baton Rouge legislator changed his mind.
Both twists took place in the state House Education Committee, which includes state Rep. Patricia Smith, D-Baton Rouge, and is chaired by state Rep. Steve Carter, R-Baton Rouge.
On April 18, Smith abruptly shelved her anti-bullying bill moments after Carter’s committee stripped what Smith considered a key provision from the measure.
The change removed parts of the bill that spelled out specific prohibitions against bullying aimed at gay students or for reasons of race, disabilities and other issues.
“Rather than you degrade a bill that was meant for the safety of the children, which is what you have just done, I am pulling the bill,” Smith said at the time.
But Smith returned to the committee earlier this week with a revamped bill, minus the list that appeared to end the debate last month.
“With the list in it, it would not have gone,” she said Friday.
The revised bill then won committee approval without objection and, along with a similar Senate-passed measure, boosts chances that the Legislature will pass anti-bullying legislation before adjournment on June 4.
“A bill will pass,” Smith said.
Freshman state Sen. Rick Ward III, D-Maringouin and sponsor of the Senate measure, is also optimistic.
“I would hope that, at the end of the day, we could get together and work out something and come out with a good bill at the end,” Ward said.
Both bills are aimed at strengthening Louisiana’s current anti-bullying law, which critics contend is too sketchy, especially in spelling out just what bullying is.
Ward’s bill defines it as any pattern of obscene gestures; written, electronic or verbal communications that threaten harm; taunting; malicious teasing, physical acts but not limited to hitting, kicking, pushing or damaging personal property and repeatedly shunning or excluding students from activities.
“Teachers and administrators have a problem saying okay, that is bullying,” Ward said.
Both bills require school employees, from teachers to school bus drivers, to undergo at least four hours of training per year on how to detect bullying, identify students likely to be targets and to learn intervention and remediation techniques.
Smith’s bill requires the training to include suicide prevention, including the relationship between suicide risk factors and harassment.
In addition, both bills spell out how students and parents are to file complaints and how and when school officials have to respond.
Ward’s bill won Senate approval last week 33-0, and is backed by Gov. Bobby Jindal’s office.
Smith said one key difference is that Ward’s bill includes a free speech provision, which says the new rules would not be aimed at infringing on the rights of students or school employees to exercise free speech.
“It sounds like you still have carte blanche to bully,” she said of that section.
Ward said the provision is needed, especially amid concerns that any such law might stifle free speech.
Meanwhile, Smith’s mandatory sex education proposal — House Bill 820 — appears dead for the session after twice failing to win approval in the House Education Committee.
Backers said the classes are needed in part to trim Louisiana’s rate of sexually transmitted diseases.
Opponents said it represents government intrusion.
On April 25 the vote was 8-8, with Carter siding with Smith.
Earlier this week the vote was 9-9, with Carter voting “no” and casting the final and decisive vote.
“I changed my mind,” he said moments after the tally.
Carter declined to elaborate later that day, and several days later.
Smith singled out Carter’s switch, which she said was especially surprising because of Carter’s previous support for her efforts.
She noted that, in 2010, she sponsored a bill that would add sex education to the public school curriculum for students in grades 4-12.
The measure died in the House 23-67.
Carter voted “yes” along with Smith.
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