SOUTH PORTLAND — It’s hard to understand why anyone would oppose a bill protecting our students from bullying.

But in recent days we’ve seen multiple columns in this newspaper from a Republican state lawmaker, the executive director of the Christian Civic League and a co-founder of an anti-gay marriage group desperately grasping for an explanation for why they opposed such a measure, which I sponsored during the legislative session in Augusta.

They provided plenty of excuses. But the tone of their commentaries spoke volumes.

They don’t like this bill because they believe protecting students from bullies is part of some “secret gay agenda.” Sounds silly when you say it out loud, doesn’t it? And nothing could be further from the truth.

Sure, gay students are bullied all the time — and they deserve to be protected. But so are overweight children, short children, smart children, poor children and any child that is just a little different. It’s cruel. It’s wrong. We should do what we can to stop it.

When I introduced this legislation, it was never about putting the needs of one kind of student over another.

All students should be protected equally from bullying. It was a pretty black-and-white issue.

Perhaps that’s why the measure was endorsed by newspapers across the state. And why lawmakers unanimously supported it on every vote until the final one (prior to which the Christian Civic League sent out an action alert calling for the GOP to oppose it).

The legislation I submitted, which was worked on and developed by a broad group of stakeholders, is simple and straightforward.

It requires school districts to have an anti-bullying policy and a response plan to bullying of any student. The bill would have asked the Department of Education to develop a model policy for schools to follow.

The bill lays out specific definitions of bullying. According to the law, the basis of bullying may be related to “race, skin color, religion, ancestry, national origin, gender, sexual orientation or mental, physical or sensory handicap or other distinguishing characteristic (although an affected student is not required to possess a characteristic under this subparagraph).”

The bill is not about protecting any one specific student over another. It states clearly that bullying must be prevented. Vote yes if you agree, vote no if you don’t.

The groups that supported and provided input to this legislation included teachers, parents of the victims of bullying, students and police officers.

The committee carefully considered the testimony of all parties and amended the bill to address many of the concerns raised by opponents.

It strikes a balance between free speech rights and safety in the schools — and it provides desperately needed parameters for schools that are dealing with an epidemic of bullying and violence.

Bullying is a serious issue in our schools — and in schools across the country.

With Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube, students are subject to bullying in all sorts of new, insidious ways that many parents and teachers could not have imagined when we were children.

We’ve seen the cruelty of these acts make headlines across the country and here in Maine.

In 2010, there were at least 14 suicides resulting from bullying nationally. If that’s not a compelling enough reason to take action, consider that the National Education Association estimates that 160,000 children miss school every day due to fear of attack or intimidation by other students.

Seventy-one percent of students report incidents of bullying as a problem at their school, and 56 percent of students have personally witnessed some type of bullying at school.

Bullying affects a student’s ability to learn, and can create a hostile and frightening environment for the victims of bullying.

Protecting our students and providing a safe environment for them to learn should be a top priority.

It shouldn’t be politicized. It shouldn’t be an ideological battle line. In fact, it is just plain common sense.

Democrats stood on the side of Maine children and parents to protect our students.

We will continue to do so when the Legislature reconvenes in January.

I hope by then we can come together to find a solution that puts our children before the ideological commands of interest groups. 

– Special to the Press Herald