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D.C. Council considers school anti-bullying policy

By Tim Craig
Monday, November 29, 2010; 10:35 PM

The D.C. Council is preparing some of the nation's strictest regulations against bullying in city schools or public buildings in an effort to curtail behaviors they say can at times terrorize youths.

At a council hearing Monday that featured testimony from teenagers who said they have been mocked over their religion, looks or sexual orientation, Mayor-elect Vincent C. Gray (D) said that the city should make it a top priority to take on schoolyard bullies.

"In recent months, there have been a number of nationally publicized incidents of bullying, some of them ending tragically," said Gray, who, as council chairman, oversaw the four-hour hearing. "As a government, we must use these incidents as teachable moments and take action."

In response to bills sponsored by Council members Michael A. Brown (I-At Large) and Harry Thomas Jr. (D-Ward 5), the council is exploring whether to require city public and charter schools, the Department of Parks and Recreation, the District of Columbia Public Library, and the University of the District of Columbia to develop policies and sanctions against "harassment, intimidation or bullying" on their grounds.

The proposals, which are still being finalized but appear to have broad support on the 13-member body, mandate that officials conduct thorough and "prompt" investigations into allegations of bullying. They also call for the creation of a detailed reporting system to document episodes of threatening behavior.

But the measures, which could come up for a vote early next year, are sparking division between city leaders and charter school advocates over the council's authority to regulate those academic institutions. The council also could be on a collision course with the American Civil Liberties Union, which worries the initiatives could endanger students' constitutional right to free speech.

"It is perfectly legitimate for a student to say, 'I think homosexual conduct is against the word of God,' " said Arthur B. Spitzer, legal director for the D.C. chapter of the ACLU. "A gay student might feel hurt by that and consider it bullying, but that is an opinion that every student has a right to express."

Responding to a series of suicides involving teenagers and young adults who may have felt harassed, numerous cities and states are considering anti-bullying measures. Last week, the New Jersey legislature approved a bill requiring schools and colleges to adopt anti-bullying policies. In Maryland, Gov. Martin O'Malley (D) signed a law in 2008 that requires school districts to adopt bullying-prevention programs.

The proposals by Brown and Thomas, which are being championed by gay rights and youths advocates, do not make bullying a crime. However, they would increase pressure on school administrators and other adults in taxpayer-funded oversight roles to punish anyone suspected of using "written, verbal or electronic communication" to mock someone based on his or her "race, national origin, marital status, sexual orientation, gender identity, religion, ancestry, physical attributes, socioeconomic status or physical or mental ability or disability."

"There are situations that are quite egregious going on right now, and we cannot turn a blind eye," said Thomas, holding up a copy of the Oct. 18 People magazine that featured an article about three recent teenage suicides that may have been related to bullying. "When we let these little things [get out of control], they become big things."

David Aponte, 18, of Manassas told the council he attempted suicide three times because he was bullied for being Jewish and short while attending Signal Hill Elementary School in Prince William County.

"I don't want to see anyone else suffer the way I did," Aponte said. "This is not a gay issue or a Jewish issue or black and white issue. This is a human issue."

But some charter school advocates are resisting efforts by the council to extend the legislation to those facilities, which were set up to be semiautonomous.

Michael F. Musante, director of government relations for the Friends of Choice in Urban Schools, said many of the city's 52 charter schools already have anti-bullying policies. Forcing additional regulations on them, Musante said, would run afoul of the spirit of the legislation that established charter schools in the city.

"One-size-fits-all legislation may be suitable for a school system like DCPS but makes no sense for the public charter schools," said Musante. He said bullying should be addressed "through school disciplinary codes that can be tailored to the unique circumstances of each school and student body."

Gray and Thomas questioned Musante's stance, arguing that all District youths need to be protected regardless of which school they attend.

But Spitzer said the legislation needs more scrutiny before the ACLU could endorse it. Specifically, Spitzer said the council should more clearly define what type of behavior constitutes bullying.

"Students, like other people, can't be fully protected from having their feelings hurt by what people may say," Spitzer said.

Bill Briggs, head of the D.C. Chapter of Parents, Families & Friends of Lesbians and Gays, countered that verbal taunting can have a lasting impact on a young person. Council members were stunned into silence as Briggs recounted a phone call he recently received from the mother of a gay daughter.

"Her daughter was so tormented and harassed so many times at school, she went out and got pregnant just so people would assume she was heterosexual," Briggs said.

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