The Virginia House of Delegates overwhelmingly passed a bill Monday that would define the term "bullying" and instructs individual school boards to adopt policies and procedures to prevent its occurrence.
The House of Delegates approved HB1871, sponsored by Del. Jennifer McClellan (D-Richmond, Henrico Co.), by a vote of 93-6, with all 32 of the lower chamber's Democrats and 61 Republicans voting in favor. Six Republicans, mostly from the southern or western regions of the commonwealth, voted no, and a seventh, Del. Charles Poindexter (R-Franklin, Henry, Patrick counties), was recorded as voting yes but indicated after the vote that he had intended to vote against the bill, according to a roll call on the Virginia General Assembly website.
HB1871 defines "bullying" as "any aggressive and unwanted behavior that is intended to harm, intimidate, or humiliate the victim; involves a real or perceived power imbalance between the aggressor or aggressors and victim; and is repeated over time or causes severe emotional trauma." HB1871 specifically states that bullying includes cyber-bullying, but does not include ordinary teasing, horseplay, argument or conflict between students.
The bill also requires each school board adopt a "character education" program aimed at promoting certain values and personal character traits that are aimed at reducing the incidence of bullying and improving school environments to make them more conducive to learning. Examples of values that could be taught in a character-education program listed in the bill include respect, accountability, self-control, kindness, nondiscrimination and "citizenship, including the Pledge of Allegiance, respect for the American flag, concern for the common good, respect for authority and law, and community-mindedness."
Under the legislation, each board of education is tasked with establishing criteria for the character education program, and will award grants to school boards that implement innovative character education programs.
Boards of education are also expected to establish guidelines and model policies for student codes of conduct that will provide guidance to local school boards about how best to implement such policies, which will include criteria for punishment by offenders and standards for the in-service training of school personnel.
Under the proposed law, each school board must include a prohibition on bullying as part of its code of conduct, but the policies in such a code "shall not be interpreted to infringe on the First Amendment rights of students and are not intended to prohibit expression of religious, philosophical or political views, provided that such expression does not cause an actual, material disruption of the work of the school." The law also requires school boards to adopt appropriate procedures to educate employees about the importance of fostering a bully-free environment.
The bill now goes to the Senate, where it will likely receive a hearing before the Committee on Education and Health. A hearing date has not been set yet, according to the General Assembly website.
Kevin Clay, a spokesman for the commonwealth's major LGBT rights organization Equality Virginia, told Metro Weekly recently that the organization has been closely tracking the bullying bill and is hoping it will succeed.
"It is absolutely important that the commonwealth protect all children from bullying," Clay said.
Although the bill does not make any specific references to LGBT youth, Clay said that Equality Virginia is focused on working on a district-by-district basis to convince individual school boards to adopt fully enumerated rights for students based on characteristics such as race, religion or sexual orientation and gender identity.
[Photo: Del. Jennifer McClellan, chief sponsor of HB1871 (Courtesty of Virginia General Assembly).]