In 2001, Oregon lawmakers passed a bill aimed at cracking down on schoolyard bullying.
The measure was an effort to make schools safer places after a rash of school shootings across the country, including one in Springfield. But those who pushed for the bill say it hasn’t worked.
Bullying remains a problem in Oregon schools. Now, lawmakers are again considering what to do about bullying. A new bill would require school districts to more aggressively deal with it.
The measure got its first hearing in front of a legislative committee Monday. Salem correspondent Chris Lehman reports.
Meet Thomas. He’s like a lot of 11-year-old boys. He has a pretty good sense of what he wants to do when he grows up.
Thomas: “I wanna do something high-tech, like maybe game-tester.”
Thomas is not his real name. His mother doesn’t want his real name used because she fears for her son’s safety. Thomas is a fifth-grader in Lebanon, Oregon.
He has Asperger’s Syndrome, which is a form of autism. Thomas has trouble expressing himself. Sometimes he has a speech impediment. And he’s just a little different.
A few of his classmates don’t understand why. One boy in particular has been extra tough on him.
Thomas: “He keeps on calling me ‘retard, stupid.’ And it kinds of makes me feel bad about myself, like I’m not good enough. It makes me feel that I don’t even want to live anymore.”
The bully makes Thomas so angry he wants to lash out.
Thomas: “I feel like I actually want to, wham, you know. He is just so mean.”
Thomas’ mother, Deborah, says she’s talked with school officials about the harassment. But she says the situation still isn’t resolved.
Deborah: “It feels awful to have your child feeling that way everyday, and you try to go to the school to do something about it, and they say well kids will be kids, and this is a stage they all go through.”
Deborah’s experience isn’t unique. University of Oregon student Rachel Cushman came to the capitol to tell lawmakers about her experience. At a Salem press conference, she says she was constantly put down in high school for being Native American. And she says she didn’t know where to turn for help.
Rachel Cushman: “Teachers would be, like, ‘That’s how kids are.’ You know, ‘Go on about your way and just don’t talk to them.’, or whatever. There really wasn’t a person to talk to at my school.”
Anti-bullying advocates say that’s just unacceptable. They’re pushing a law they say would strengthen anti-bullying policies in Oregon schools.
Every Oregon district is already required to have an anti-bullying policy. But there are no statewide requirements for what to include in those policies. Advocates say fewer than half of Oregon’s 198 districts have any meaningful anti-bullying policy.
This measure would require school districts to send parents copies of the policy each year.
Democratic Representative Sara Gelser of Corvallis says that would give parents the tools they need to speak up on behalf of their children.
Rep. Sara Gelser: “It will ensure that in every school district in the state, there is a clear policy to deal with bullying and harassment, so that students, staff and parents will know who the point person is within the district. They will know how to address concerns that they have and were to go to seek relief.”
Backers of the measure say it’s not just racial minorities and kids with disabilities who get harassed. Gay rights advocates say one in three gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender high school students in Oregon experience a hostile climate at school.
Tash Shatz is with the Oregon Students Equal Rights Alliance.
Tash Shatz: “These students experience verbal harassment, physical intimidation and threats from their peers. This physical and emotional distress results in many students missing classes or skipping school because they do not feel safe or secure.”
As for Thomas, he says he’s developed his own strategy for dealing with bullies. He tries not to let on that they’re bothering him.
Thomas: “I just try to keep the anger in me, ‘cause I don’t react or anything. I pretend like I don’t even care ‘cause I don’t want them to know that I react ‘cause if I do then they’ll find another reason to make fun of me.”
In Lebanon, where Thomas lives, the school district posts its anti-bullying policy on its website, which is true in a lot of districts. Advocates for this bill say they want those policies to protect kids like Thomas so they don’t have to just cope.