The Virginia Senate overwhelmingly passed a bill Monday that sets in place a framework for local school boards to follow when crafting and adopting policies and procedures aimed at curbing bullying in Virginia schools.
After the Senate adopted some technical amendments, the measure, HB1871, passed the Senate by a 37-3 vote, with Sen. Dick Black (R-Loudoun, Prince William counties), a vocal opponent of LGBT rights; Sen. Thomas Garrett (R-Lynchburg, Appomattox, Amherst, Buckingham, Cumberland, Prince Edward counties); and Sen. Charles Carrico Sr. (R-Bristol, Grayson, Washington, Smyth, Wythe, Scott, Lee counties) voting against the bill. All three had initially voted against it in committee.
A prior version of the bill, without the technical amendments, passed the House 93-6 earlier this month. The Senate bill containing the amendments will now be placed on the House calendar so that the body may vote on the Senate amendments. The bill is expected to pass by a similarly large margin, after which it will be sent to Gov. Bob McDonnell (R).
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," including cyber-bullying. The bill specifically exempts ordinary teasing, horseplay, arguments or conflicts between students from being classified as bullying.
The bill provides a framework for local education boards to establish guidelines and model policies, both for student codes of conduct and for in-service training of school personnel. Each school board must require a prohibition on bullying in student codes of conduct, but other policies and procedures that may be adopted are left to the discretion of individual school boards.
The commonwealth's main LGBT0-rights group, Equality Virginia, is relying on that provision in the hope of influencing local school boards to adopt additional policies addressing anti-LGBT bullying.
To placate conservatives, who dominate the General Assembly, particularly in the House of Delegates, the bill states that anti-bullying policies in a student code of conduct "shall not be interpreted to infringe upon 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 or the work of the school." In practice, that could mean that students who choose to speak out against homosexuality or wear anti-gay T-shirts may continue to do so, as long as they do not single out particular LGBT students for harassment and their behavior or speech is within acceptable limits for a school environment.
The bill also requires each school board to adopt a "character education" program aimed at preventing bullying before it starts by promoting certain values or character traits deemed acceptable for school environments, including respect, accountability, self-control, kindness, nondiscrimination and even "citizenship, including the Pledge of Allegiance, respect for the American flag, concern for the common good, respect for authority and law and community-mindedness."
[Photo: Sen. Dick Black (Courtesy of the Virginia General Assembly)]