The blogosphere has erupted with outrage over the new Michigan bullying law. Nearly all the posts say that the Michigan bullying law allows bullying if it comes from a strongly held religious or moral belief. Very few of these posts, however, actually link to or quote the text of the law as it currently stands. So I went looking for it.
I found the actual text of the law on the Michigan legislature’s website. I have quoted the parts of the bill which are most pertinent to the above allegation. The law itself is a set of requirements that individual school districts must satisfy as they develop their bullying policies.
First of all, the definition of bullying. It seems to me extremely vague and far-reaching – in other words, I think it would be easy to make all sorts of things which aren’t really bullying be construed as bullying.
(B) “BULLYING” MEANS ANY WRITTEN, VERBAL, OR PHYSICAL ACT, OR
ANY ELECTRONIC COMMUNICATION, BY A PUPIL DIRECTED AT 1 OR MORE
OTHER PUPILS THAT IS INTENDED OR THAT A REASONABLE PERSON WOULD
KNOW IS LIKELY TO HARM 1 OR MORE PUPILS EITHER DIRECTLY OR
INDIRECTLY BY DOING ANY OF THE FOLLOWING:
(i) SUBSTANTIALLY INTERFERING WITH EDUCATIONAL OPPORTUNITIES,
BENEFITS, OR PROGRAMS OF 1 OR MORE PUPILS.
(ii) SUBSTANTIALLY AND ADVERSELY AFFECTING THE ABILITY OF A
PUPIL TO PARTICIPATE IN OR BENEFIT FROM THE SCHOOL DISTRICT’S OR
PUBLIC SCHOOL’S EDUCATIONAL PROGRAMS OR ACTIVITIES BY PLACING THE
PUPIL IN REASONABLE FEAR OF PHYSICAL HARM.
(iii) HAVING AN ACTUAL AND SUBSTANTIAL DETRIMENTAL EFFECT ON A
PUPIL’S PHYSICAL OR MENTAL HEALTH OR CAUSING SUBSTANTIAL EMOTIONAL
(iv) CAUSING SUBSTANTIAL DISRUPTION IN, OR SUBSTANTIAL
INTERFERENCE WITH, THE ORDERLY OPERATION OF THE SCHOOL.
Now, the clause that is causing so much fuss:
(8) THIS SECTION DOES NOT ABRIDGE THE RIGHTS UNDER THE FIRST
AMENDMENT OF THE CONSTITUTION OF THE UNITED STATES OR UNDER ARTICLE
I OF THE STATE CONSTITUTION OF 1963 OF A SCHOOL EMPLOYEE, SCHOOL
VOLUNTEER, PUPIL, OR A PUPIL’S PARENT OR GUARDIAN. THIS SECTION
DOES NOT PROHIBIT A STATEMENT OF A SINCERELY HELD RELIGIOUS BELIEF
OR MORAL CONVICTION OF A SCHOOL EMPLOYEE, SCHOOL VOLUNTEER, PUPIL,
OR A PUPIL’S PARENT OR GUARDIAN.
But what exactly do they mean by “section”? They mean the whole thing, of course, but this is the very first thing you read about the section:
SEC. 1310B. (1) NOT LATER THAN 6 MONTHS AFTER THE EFFECTIVE
DATE OF THIS SECTION, THE BOARD OF A SCHOOL DISTRICT OR
INTERMEDIATE SCHOOL DISTRICT OR BOARD OF DIRECTORS OF A PUBLIC
SCHOOL ACADEMY SHALL ADOPT AND IMPLEMENT A POLICY PROHIBITING
BULLYING BY PUPILS AT SCHOOL, AS DEFINED IN THIS SECTION.
It seems to me that the oh-so-awful Michigan clause is nowhere NEAR as bad as people have been making it out to be. In fact, it’s the exact opposite. If the law works as intended, people who try to use (8) to actually get away with name-calling, or beating people up – or, in other words, BULLYING – will fail miserably, and rightly so. On the other hand, if Sally is accused of bullying Billy because Sally told Billy that she believes Billy’s behavior is wrong based on her religious belief, even though the world believes Billy’s behavior is absolutely fine, this clause SHOULD prevent Sally from getting in trouble. Also, please note the people mentioned in (8). (8) protects parents’ freedom of speech and religion, as well as teachers, volunteers, and students. Yet, based on the definition of bullying, only STUDENTS can bully. Why even mention the other people, then? Well, as I mentioned earlier, this law is a list of requirements for the bullying policies which will be created by individual school districts. Because of that religious/moral clause, the school district will not be able to say that stating a religious or moral belief is automatically bullying. Parents can still teach their children according to their religious and moral beliefs. Teachers will not get in trouble for telling students what a religious/moral belief system teaches. Etc, etc. This clause is NOT a bad thing. Actually, I think it is probably necessary in our current climate.