A bill touted as a way to curb bullying in public schools, without spelling out controversial protections for gay students and others, won approval Thursday in the state Senate Education Committee.
The proposal, which is a substitute for Senate Bill 709, passed the committee without objection and next faces action on the Senate floor.
However, even some backers said the legislation needs revisions.
In addition, new arguments are expected on whether special protections are needed for students targeted for their sexual orientation, disabilities, race and other issues, which have been the key focus of previous debates.
State Sen. Rick Ward III, D-Maringouin and sponsor of the bill, said the plan was inspired in part by the March suicide of Tesa Middlebrook, a 17-year-old student who attended Pointe Coupee Central High School.
Relatives of the girl said they think a prolonged period of school bullying led to her death.
Gov. Bobby Jindal’s office backs the measure, and an aide, Stafford Palmieri, said she helped write it.
The measure is aimed at strengthening Louisiana’s current anti-bullying law.
It would define bullying as including obscene gestures; written, electronic or verbal communications and physical acts that put the student in fear of harm, or that create an intimidating or threatening school environment that interferes with student performance or school operations.
Students and parents could file complaints with school officials.
If officials conclude that an act of bullying occurred they would be required to take disciplinary action, and report any criminal conduct to authorities.
Under the bill, parents and students could appeal any lack of response by school officials — a common complaint — to the local school board and the state Board of Elementary and Secondary Education.
Gene Mills, executive director of the Louisiana Family Forum, praised the bill. “We think bullying ... is unbecoming conduct,” Mills told the committee.
Mills said Ward’s proposal does not “advance any political agenda,” a frequent complaint that Mills and others have made about anti-bullying bills that spell out specific prohibitions.
Jennifer Curry, president elect of the Louisiana School Counselors Association, said Ward’s bill needs more work.
Curry noted that one provision would allow a bullied student to transfer to another school if they or their parents filed four or more complaints that school officials failed to investigate.
She noted that changing schools can often be a trying experience for students.
“Why aren’t we moving the bully?” Curry asked.
Palmieri, policy director for Jindal, said the bill would give parents and students options without examining why students are being bullied.
After the committee approved Ward’s bill, state Sen. Yvonne Dorsey-Columb, D-Baton Rouge, urged senators to pass her own anti-bullying legislation.
It includes specific prohibitions against acts motivated by sexual orientation, gender identity, political ideas and other issues.
Dorsey-Colomb said that, if the committee approved both bills, she would work with Ward for a “happy medium.”
But the committee rejected her bill, with one “yes” vote and four “no” votes.
State Rep. Patricia Smith, D-Baton Rouge, sponsored a similar bill, which she shelved in the House Education Committee on April 18 after the panel made major changes.
The decisive amendment in that debate removed parts of the bill that listed specific prohibitions against bullying for reasons of sexual orientation, disabilities, race and other issues.
Michelle Ghetti, a professor of constitutional law at the Southern University Law Center, criticized Smith’s bill at the time.
Ghetti said Thursday that she is the “primary drafter” of the bill approved by the Senate Education Committee.