A scaled-down bill to curb bullying in public schools won Louisiana House approval Wednesday in less than five minutes, a rarity for an issue that often sparks heated arguments.
The House endorsed the measure 73-16, which now moves to the state Senate and is sponsored by state Rep. Patricia Smith, D-Baton Rouge. Sixteen state representatives did not vote.
The key issue now is how that bill can be reconciled with a rival plan that passed the Senate last week 33-0, and which is backed by Gov. Bobby Jindal’s office.
Earlier in the day the House Education Committee approved that measure, Senate Bill 764, after some bickering on crucial issues between Smith and state Sen. Rick Ward III, D-Port Allen and sponsor of the legislation.
Differences include reporting requirements, free speech protections and the role of the state Department of Education in tackling bullying problems.
Smith said there has been talk of a sit-down session to try to agree on one bill.
“I will wait and see whether we have that meeting,” she told reporters after the vote.
In brief remarks, Smith told the House her bill is meant to address problems that have surfaced in classrooms around the nation. “Louisiana has a law but it really doesn’t go far enough,” she said.
The bill would ban bullying, including cyber-bullying, and defines the act as fear-inducing, threatening or abusive actions.
Local school boards would be required to spell out the bans in a code of conduct.
School employees would be required to undergo at least four hours of training on how to detect and curb bullying, including the relationship between suicide risk factors and harassment.
The legislation would also require the state Department of Education to compile a list of best practices on how school employees can address the problem.
Under the plan, school officials who receive a complaint of bullying would be required to verbally report the allegation to the principal that day, and in writing within two days of the incident.
The principal would then be required to notify the student’s parents, launch an investigation within one school day and finish it within 10 days.
Smith’s bill, like the Senate-passed version, excludes specific prohibitions against bullying aimed at gay students or for reasons of race, disabilities, religion or political ideas — a source of heated controversy in past debates.
“That’s off the table,” she said.
Ward told the House committee that his proposal tries to address the problem without unfairly singling out students for routine horseplay.
“I don’t want to do anything that keeps kids from being kids,” he told the panel.
But Smith disputed several parts of Ward’s bill.
One section in the Senate-passed measure says the new anti-bullying rules would not be aimed at infringing on the rights of students or school employees to exercise free speech.
Smith said that section could be a license to bully.
On another issue, she said it is unfair to require a “pattern” of bullying before action can be taken, not just a single incident.
Smith also criticized a provision in Ward’s bill that would allow a student to transfer to another school if school officials failed to act on four complaints.
She said that would amount to “taking the victim out and not changing the culture” of the school.
Ward said the free speech provision is designed in part to protect the bill if it is challenged in court.
He also said that moving the student to another school is merely an option for parents, not a requirement.
Smith’s bid to make 29 changes in Ward’s bill failed 2-12
Backing Ward’s bill were the Louisiana School Boards Association, the state Board of Elementary and Secondary Education, the Louisiana Family Forum and the Louisiana Baptist Convention.
Opponents included the Louisiana Association of Educators, a teachers’ union.