Anti-bullying rally in Howell kicks off 2011 push for Safe School Law

More rallies planned around state this spring, summer

By James David Dickson

HOWELL -

Schoolyard bullying is a different animal these days, and an anti-bullying law could help keep students in K-12 schools safe.

This was the cause that moved some four-dozen protestors to rally and march in downtown Howell on Saturday morning.

Michigan is one of only five states without an anti-bullying law, but that's not for trying. State Sen. Glenn Anderson, a Democrat who represents Michigan's sixth district, which includes Westland and Livonia, first introduced an anti-bullying law in 2005, when he was a state representative. Since then the state house has passed anti-bullying legislation twice, and twice it has failed to pass the Republican-controlled Senate. Anderson is leading the push for Senate Bill 45.

The rally was organized by the Michigan Democratic LGBT Caucus and the Michigan School Tolerance Campaign. The strategy of the Howell rally, and the others like it that will take place around the state this spring and summer, including in Grand Rapids and Lansing, is to present bullying as an issue that affects all schoolchildren and concerns all parents.

Since 2001 there have been at least 10 known incidents of Michigan teens committing suicide after being bullied. Senate Bill 45 is nicknamed "Matt's Safe School Law" in honor of one of those teens, Matt Epling of East Lansing, who killed himself in 2002 several weeks after a traumatic hazing incident on his last day of eighth grade.

Matt's Safe School Law would require every school district in Michigan to adopt an anti-bullying policy, including specific plans on how bullying issues are to be resolved. Schools would need to complete an investigation of any bullying complaint within three days, and school employees who witness incidents of bullying would be required to report them to superiors. Districts would be required to give employees annual training on their respective bullying policies.

To combat the idea that bullying only affects a tiny sliver of students, and as such doesn't need to be addressed by lawmakers, Jocelyn Benson, an associate professor at Wayne State University Law School and the 2010 Democratic nominee for Michigan Secretary of State, said that she will head up a data collection effort to expose the extent and the impact of bullying in Michigan.

She did not stay for the march but said in a speech beforehand that Michigan needs to take a zero tolerance approach to bullying.

The data-collection effort has two facets: First, she will seek out "county allies," who will act as watchdogs in their local communities and report on bullying incidents when they hear of them. Then, Benson will put all of the collected data on a website, with a map, updated monthly, that reflects where incidents of bullying are taking place.

"We'll record not only what happened, but what the response was as well," Benson explained. "Where there are good responses, we'll talk about those, we'll discuss best practices. Where there are bad responses, or no response, we can be a watchdog."

Lauren Jasenak, 17, a senior at Brighton High School and the head of the school's Gay-Straight Alliance, was among the crowd on Saturday morning. Jasenak said she's been a victim of bullying at the school, but that the alliance and her teachers often provide safe space on campus. She plans to attend Eastern Michigan University and wants to be an English teacher and to help young students through their teenage years.

"I want to be able to teach tolerance in the classroom," Jasenak said. "I want to teach about all times of tolerance - not just women's rights or minority rights, but respect for everyone."

The anti-bullying march was more about mobilizing for the fall than for creating a spectacle. It started at 10 a.m. and was done by 11. It traveled a short route in downtown Howell on a cold and sleepy Saturday. And its impact will only reach beyond the 50 or so who showed up, Volk said, if attendees, who hailed from all over Southeast Michigan, each invite five friends to their homes for so-called "kitchen forums," or small group chats on the effects of bullying and the importance of stopping it.

The campaign is mobilizing supporters for Lobbying Day in Lansing on Wednesday, May 4. Supporters are being encouraged to reach out to their legislators and schedule appointments with them to advocate for the passage of Matt's Safe School Law. The legislative effort will likely come this fall, Volk said.

"(Bullying) used to be different," said Edward Withers, who came to Howell from Inkster for the march. "It used to be not that serious, like upperclassmen picking on the freshmen on Freshman Friday, but now it's a lot more vicious. You got kids committing suicide because they're being bullied. You've got kids being killed by their bullies. It's a different animal now. It's a serious issue."

To learn more about Matt's Law, visit http://legislature.mi.gov/doc.aspx?2011-SB-0045.

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