Gov. Sonny Perdue is expected to sign an anti-bullying law today and at his side will be the family of Jaheem Herrera, a fifth grader who killed himself after his mother said he endured extensive bullying at school including being called “gay.”
The Atlanta Journal-Constitution reports today that Herrera’s family applauded the state legislature and Perdue for ensuring the bill became law.
“This is the first step in the long journey to end the terror that grips victims in the schoolhouse,” the Herrera family said in a statement, according to the AJC. “We applaud the governor and the fine lawmakers of the state of Georgia for hearing the cries of the innocent and oppressed victims of bullying. Jaheem’s memory will forever be known as the agent for change in Georgia classrooms.”
The bill was sponsored by Rep. Mike Jacobs (R-Atlanta) and was passed in the last hours of the legislative session.
While the bill does not specifically address bullying based on sexual orientation or gender identity, it was strongly backed by Georgia Equality and lobbyists believe it will help LGBT students, who often face bullying in school.
During debate on the House floor earlier this year, Jacobs said that he was moved to sponsor the bill by the death of Herrera, who attended public school in Dekalb County.
Herrera committed suicide. His parents said he endured relentless bullying, including being called “gay,” although a school system investigation said Herrera was not bullied and students reported that when they used the word “gay,” they thought it meant “happy.”
Jacobs’ bill appeared unlikely to pass this year, but it was added as an amendment a Senate bill. SB 250, sponsored by state Sen. Bill Hamrick (R-Carrollton), was approved in the Senate last March and originally dealt only with “unlawful disruption of or interference with the operation of public schools or public school buses.”
Jacobs introduced HB 927 this year. The measure would expand the definition of bullying while requiring schools to develop guidelines tailored to curb bullying in elementary through high schools.
The Young Democrats of Georgia Stonewall Caucus issued a press release stating it was pleased to see the anti-bullying bill amended to the state bill.
“While we are displeased that the bill does not have LGBT exclusive language, we are content knowing the increasing problem of discrimination will be dealt with across the board legislation,” the press release states.
“The passage of this bill marks a great moment for the LGBT community, as this is the only piece of legislation on the slate for the 2010 legislative term that will directly affect members of our community on the basis of sexual orientation and gender identity.”
The measure would expand the definition of bullying while requiring schools to develop guidelines tailored to curb bullying in elementary through high schools.
In an email to supporters last month, Georgia Equality Executive Director Jeff Graham said the group lobbied for the bill at the state Capitol, and organized its supporters to send over 300 emails to legislators, plus “dozens” of phone calls.
“This law is so important in our efforts to protect vulnerable LGBT youth in schools,” Graham said in the email. “Your willingness to act will truly make a difference in the lives of so many.”
Graham’s email also outlined the specifics of what the new legislation will accomplish:
• Sets a January 2011 deadline for the state Department of Education to develop an anti-bullying policy that can be a model for local school systems
• Requires age-appropriate consequences for bullying from kindergarten through 12th grade – current policies only deal with bullying in sixth through 12th grades
• Requires school staff to report suspected incidents, and instructs school boards to punish and work to prevent bullying
• Provides that a student can be reassigned to another school for the purpose of separating the student from his or her bullying victim
• Provides for immediate notification of law enforcement when a student commits an alleged physical assault or battery on another student, teacher or other school employee
• Defines bullying as threats of injury, displays of force used to intimidate a victim, or written, verbal and physical acts which a reasonable person would perceive as being intended to threaten, harass or intimidate
Top photo: State Representative Mike Jacobs who sponsored the anti-bully legislation (courtesy repjacobs.com)