Anti-bullying bill gets committee support after emotional testimony

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By Andy Birkey | March 25, 2009 • A bill to strengthen anti-bullying laws passed the Senate Education Committee on Tuesday, but not before anti-gay groups testified against it because a provision in the bill would have schools address bullying based on sexual orientation, in addition to 14 other characteristics.

“We believe it will result in the indoctrination and intimidation of teachers and students who object to homosexuality who believe it is not healthy and should not be promoted,” said Tom Prichard of the Minnesota Family Council. “I think we need to realize that sexual orientation encompasses homosexuals, bisexuals, among other things cross dressing, transvestites, people that have sex change operations and all sorts of categories, so we need to realize what we are giving specific recognition to.”

Despite that testimony, the bill cleared the panel. Teenagers from around the state testified about bullying in their schools on the basis of ethnicity, body type, socioeconomic status and many other factors. Perhaps no one’s testimony was more powerful than that of Andy Berlin, a senior at the Perpich Center for Arts Education.

“To me this bill is not political. It is personal. Schools need to be a place where all students feel safe,” said Berlin, who testified that he was tormented by students at a western metro middle school. “When I was in sixth grade students began to tease and bully me, calling me homophobic names. I began to skip school at least one day a week. … My grades were deeply affected. Instead of focusing on my school work, I focused on just getting through the day.”

Berlin said he talked to the assistant principal at the school. “He implied I’d made the choice to be a homosexual.” The harassment and lack of support from some school staff took its toll. “By the time I was 13, I was hospitalized due to the trauma I experienced.”

Now that he is at a school that has anti-bullying policies similar to the ones outlined in the bill, he said his grades have improved and he feels safe.

State Sen. Scott Dibble, author of the bill and a gay man, said that including sexual orientation is vital.

“It is really important for the committee to appreciate the kind of devastating impact and the potential harm that causes to kids who are members of marginalized groups for whatever reason,” the Minneapolis Democrat said. “It can’t be given short shrift or dismissed under the guise that we are all humans and we all get bullied.

“The data is clear that some kids — I’m most familiar with gay kids — by a factor of 40-plus percent, these kids consider suicide because of the treatment they are given by their peers,” he said.

“We absolutely need to name specifically what we are talking about. To do less is to not serve our kids.”

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