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Dignity For All

State bill further defines school bullying.



As it stands now, if a gay kid is picked on in a Tennessee school, his or her teacher may not agree that the harassment constitutes bullying, and the situation may go unresolved.

But a new state bill sponsored by Memphis senator Jim Kyle would add classifications to the statewide bulling policy that include sexual orientation, gender identity, and gender expression.

The bill also adds race, color, religion, national origin, ancestry, ethnicity, academic achievement, disability, and physical appearance of the student or of any person that student has an actual or perceived association with.

In other words, a student can't even be bullied for talking to someone of a different ethnicity or hanging out with a transgender kid.

"I believe that our schools operate better when people get along," Kyle said. "Part of the education of all of our students is learning to respect folks and not be overly assertive."

The section of the state law that defines bullying currently does not include any classifications. It simply defines what sort of behavior counts as bullying, such as causing physical harm or emotional distress.

"Current policy doesn't name categories, and that makes things very subjective and inconsistent from school system to school system," Kyle said. "What we are trying to do is have a little more uniformity in the manner in which this is done so that when teachers go through their in-service training days, this can be part of the process."

The bill also further defines what constitutes a disability, which now includes not only physical or learning disabilities but also autism, health impairment, emotional disturbances, and even being intellectually gifted.

Kyle's bill seems in stark contrast to a bill that was introduced at this time last year by state representative Glen Casada, which essentially would have allowed students to bully others on religious grounds.

Dubbed the "License To Bully" bill by its opponents, that legislation would have attempted to clarify the state's existing school bullying law so that it "may not prohibit [a student's] expression of religious, philosophical, or political views as long as such expression does not include a threat of physical harm to a student or of damage to a student's property." Casada's bill never advanced out of committee.

Kyle's bill also falls on the opposite end of the spectrum from state senator Stacey Campfield's "Don't Say Gay" bill, which seeks to ban discussion of homosexuality in kindergarten through the 8th grade in Tennessee. The newest version of this bill seems to require teachers to report whether or not they think a student is gay to that student's parents.

Although the Tennessee Equality Project, which advocates for LGBT equality in the state, isn't making statements to the media about Kyle's bill yet, the organization did applaud the bill on its Grand Divisions blog.

"We give thanks to bill sponsor senator Jim Kyle for working with us on this legislation. This model legislation provides an important contrast to previous bills proposed in the Tennessee legislature (License to Bully and Don't Say Gay), which sought to marginalize and ostracize certain students," the website reads.

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