Anti-bullying legislation just approved by the Michigan Senate has been denounced by the father of the teenager for whom it was named because, he said, it actually allows bullying to continue.

The legislation, called “Matt’s Safe School Law,” was named after Matt Epling, an honor-roll student who killed himself at the age of 14 in 2002 after being assaulted by bullies at his school.

The draft law, which passed the state Senate with 26 Republican votes against 11 Democratic votes and now advances to the lower house, includes language inserted before the vote that says the bill “does not prohibit a statement of a sincerely held belief or moral conviction” of a student or school worker.

Activists say that the provision gives bullies license to prey on other students — especially those who are gay, lesbian or transgender — and, at least as important, gives bystanders who should be trying to stop bullying an excuse not to intervene.

The boy’s father, Kevin Epling, posted a video to YouTube in which he says he is “ashamed” of the legislation and that it will create more strife in schools.

The law, he said, “would basically say it is okay to bully or to ignore instances of bullying based on your own religious beliefs and/or moral convictions, which is contrary to the rest of the bill and it is definitely contrary to what I’ve been telling students, to step in and step up when they see this taking place in their school. As a society, we need to decrease the bystander effect, those who sit idly by and watch as things happen.”

The added provision in the legislation, he said, would allow people to watch bullying happen to someone they think deserves it based on a religious or moral belief.

Bullying is a big problem across the country. Government statistics show that at least a third of students ages 12 to 18 report being bullied during the school year. Most states have a law that makes bullying illegal, but there is little enforcement.

One of the most important aspects of anti-bullying programs in schools is teaching students — and the adults in the school building — how to safely intervene to stop students from being harassed and assaulted. In fact, experts say anti-bullying programs can’t work without this kind of training.

The Detroit News quoted Sen. Rick Jones (R-Grand Ledge), the bill’s sponsor, as saying that the bill is intended to push each school district in the state to write their own anti-bullying policy and that he does not see the law as sanctioning the kind of behavior activists are worried about.

“Certainly a child should not be allowed to go up to another child and say he’s going to hell” based on a religious conviction, Jones told the newspaper.

A murder trial in Bethesda, Md. that just resulted in a guilty verdict for the accused highlights the damage that can be done when people who are in some way alerted to the fact that someone else is in danger stand back and do nothing.

People working at an Apple store in Bethesda heard screams and pleas for help from the Lululemon Athletica shop next door one night last March. They heard a woman pleading, “God help me. Please help me,” and the store’s manager even asked an employee to listen at the wall. But none of the people in the Apple store did anything to help. The woman being assaulted sustained 322 wounds from a hammer, knife, wrench, rope and metal bars.

The bystander syndrome is tough enough for adults to break. It is imperative that anti-bullying programs focus on this issue and give nobody an excuse not to intervene.

A year ago, Rutgers University freshman Tyler Clementi learned that he had been secretly recorded while having sex with a man in his dorm room and the images were broadcast over the Internet. Nobody stopped the invasion of privacy. Clementi jumped off a bridge and killed himself; his roommate has been charged with invasion of privacy and bias intimidation.

After Clementi’s death, New Jersey passed an anti-bullying law said to be the broadest in the country, requiring public universities as well as a K-12 schools to address the issue in pro-active ways.

According to a Web site devoted to Matt Epling, the teenager was attacked by upperclassmen on his last day of eighth grade during a “Welcome to High School” hazing activity. Little was done to those who assaulted him at the time. Forty days later, he took his own life.

Correction: An earlier version of this post said that Matt Epling was assaulted by anti-gay bullies. His father, Kevin Epling, says there is no indication that the assault against his son was related to sexual orientation.


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