BATON ROUGE, La. (AP) - Louisiana senators are working to craft a tougher statewide ban on bullying at schools, but with strong disagreement over how to label what constitutes harassment against students, in a debate that has become an annual flashpoint over gay rights.
A bill advanced Thursday by the Senate Education Committee would define bullying, describe ways to report allegations and set the timeline for school administrators to respond. The measure by Sen. Rick Ward, D-Port Allen, also would allow a parent to move a child to another school if the harassment threat doesn't end.
The panel refused to back a second bill by Sen. Yvonne Dorsey-Colomb, D-Baton Rouge, that would spell out that harassment and bullying would not be allowed because of a person's characteristics, including race, ancestry, religion, physical or intellectual disability, mental illness, language ability, sexual orientation, gender identity and political ideas.
Such a list has been repeatedly opposed by the conservative Louisiana Family Forum and religious groups as introducing sexual politics into the classroom and promoting a "gay agenda" in schools. Gene Mills, head of the family forum, helped write Ward's bill, without a list of characteristics.
"This is a careful attempt to balance the rights of children with the duties of adults," Mills said.
Bullying of students is prohibited in current Louisiana law, with school boards required to include such bans in student codes of conduct and determine punishment.
Senators said the current restrictions aren't strong enough and lawmakers need to do more to try to prevent behavior that has led to student suicides, poor school performance and other struggles for students who are harassed.
Dorsey-Colomb said an enumerated list of characteristics must be included in the bill to underscore those who are bullied most often, including gay and lesbian students and students with disabilities.
"It's exponentially more on that group of people," she said.
Sen. Mike Walsworth, R-West Monroe, said the reason why a student is bullied doesn't matter. He said the conduct shouldn't be tolerated. He disagreed with including Dorsey-Colomb's list.
"Back home, I'm not hearing these characteristics are the only reason people are being bullied," he said. "It's mostly one-on-one kids not liking each other."
Mary Griggs, with the gay rights organization Forum for Equality, said teachers may disapprove of certain lifestyles and the list is essential to making sure teachers know what conduct is not acceptable.
"They may not take action against some group of students because they believe that perhaps they deserve to be bullied," Griggs said.
Gov. Bobby Jindal opposed Dorsey-Colomb's bill but supported Ward's proposal.
Stafford Palmieri, the governor's policy director, said enumerated lists create "winners and losers." She said a list of favored and protected classes of people doesn't belong in state law.
"I don't know that it's relevant to the point that all bullying is wrong and no child should be bullied," she said.
The Senate committee backed Ward's bill without objection, but voted 4-1 against Dorsey-Colomb's proposal.
As it heads to the Senate floor, Ward's proposal would require anti-bullying training for school employees and teachers, require students to be told what constitutes bullying, describe what conduct is considered bullying and give a confidential method for reporting instances of bullying. School employees would be required to report bullying if they see it or hear of it or face penalties.
Senate Bills 619 and 709 can be found at www.legis.la.gov