By KATHY BARKS HOFFMAN
LANSING, Mich. – Gov. Rick Snyder recounted how he was bullied from elementary school through college for being a “nerd” after making Michigan the 48th state to have an anti-bullying law on the books.
The legislation Snyder signed on Tuesday gives schools six months to put anti-bullying policies into place. Many school districts already have anti-bullying policies, but until the law passed, districts weren’t required to spell out what steps would be taken to deal with bullying and discourage it.
“This is something that’s long overdue,” Snyder told a large crowd at the Capitol consisting of parents whose children have been bullied and other supporters of the new law. “I was a victim of bullying. I was bullied because I was a nerd.”
The governor recounted being picked on in elementary school, junior high and high school while growing up in Battle Creek and then being “pushed around in college for being a nerd” when he attended the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor. He put a hand on the shoulder of Kevin Epling Tuesday when the father of a 14-year-old who killed himself after a hazing incident in 2002 choked up while saying how important it was to pass the anti-bullying law.
The new law is known as “Matt’s Safe School Law” in honor of Epling’s son. The East Lansing resident and co-director of BullyPolice USA spent six years campaigning to get it passed. He held up a copy of the bill in triumph after Snyder signed it.
“Today we won on for the kids of Michigan, but it took us a very long time,” Epling said. “It may not be everything we wanted, compared to other states, but it is a firm foundation. … The change starts today.”
Efforts to pass anti-bullying measures in Michigan have been held up for a decade because lawmakers couldn’t agree on how they should be worded. Some conservatives worried anti-bullying legislation was an effort by gay rights advocates to carve out special protections for homosexual students, while other lawmakers insisted the bills wouldn’t be effective unless they listed every group that could be targeted by bullies.
After some give-and-take, lawmakers agreed this year on a bill that requires policies saying “all pupils are protected” under the measures and that bullying is prohibited “without regard to its subject matter” or motivation.
Even that compromise didn’t pass without fireworks. Michigan landed in the national spotlight last month after GOP senators added a clause saying the legislation didn’t “prohibit a statement of a sincerely held religious belief or moral conviction” by a student or school employee. Democrats cried foul, saying the exceptions would make it even easier to bully.
At the time, Epling said that giving people “a `pass’ because their verbal or physical assault is `sanctioned’ by religion is mind boggling.” State superintendent Mike Flanagan called the bill a “joke.” Democratic Senate Leader Gretchen Whitmer made an impassioned, emotional argument against it on the Senate floor that was widely viewed on the Internet. Stephen Colbert slammed it on the “Colbert Report.”
In the end, the House and Senate passed a version that didn’t contain the exemption-granting clause. A solemn governor said Tuesday that the law sends a message that bullying is wrong and won’t be tolerated.
Whitmer, of East Lansing, said the new law “is one of the highlights of my legislative career.”
“It seems like a no-brainer,” she said. “But politics has a way of making easy things hard.”