JEFFERSON CITY — A hearing Wednesday on a Senate proposal to change the state's policies on bullying in schools evoked strong opinions on both sides of the issue.
The legislation, introduced by Sen. Joan Bray, D-University City, would change the wording in a Missouri statute regarding bullying, including adding "discrimination" based on "being motivated by actual or perceived race, color, religion, ancestry, national origin, gender (or) sexual orientation."
It would also require every school district to issue a statement specifically prohibiting bullying on those grounds and require them to implement plans for reporting discrimination.
A group of lesbian high school students spoke to the Senate Education Committee in favor of adding the provisions, as did other representatives of gay and lesbian rights advocacy student groups, along with an administrator from the Parkway School District in St. Louis County.
A.J. Bockelman, the executive director of PROMO, a gay and lesbian advocacy group based in St. Louis, said it was naive to think a mandate that just said "no bullying" would be effective enough.
"We saw with the Civil Rights Movement back in the 1960s that you can't just say 'there shall be no discrimination,'" Bockelman said. "It's not just enough; we have to be clear and open about who is really being discriminated against."
He added that school systems that had policies prohibiting discrimination on the basis of different sexual orientations could protect administrators from lawsuits.
However, Sen. Norma Champion, R-Springfield, expressed skepticism of the bill. She said the state can never really know what people are being bullied for and gave a personal anecdote. In grade school, she said, she was bullied for shining her shoes every day, something that wouldn't be covered under these provisions.
Champion said she worries creating specific classes of discrimination would instead create a policy of favoring some aggrieved students over others.
"When you start saying 'these people are protected and these people are not,' it creates a problem," she said. "We'll never have enough categories. When are we gonna stop with that?"
The committee's chair, Sen. David Pearce, R-Warrensburg, said the reforms face an uphill battle from here, seeing as how there are only seven weeks left in the Missouri General Assembly's session and the bill was only now introduced.
"Anything that comes up this late would be tough to pass on its own," Pearce said. "It's up to Sen. Bray to gather the votes up for this. Right now I don't know where the votes are."
Following the hearing, Bray went into a meeting and was not available for further comment before deadline. No date has been set for voting on the bill.