The Michigan Senate passed legislation Wednesday that requires school districts to develop anti-bullying policies, but the father of the boy for whom the bill is named says he has strong objections to language inserted at the last minute.
One of the reforms will require school districts to have procedures in place to address bullying complaints. But the bill now also has language that says requirements don't "prohibit a statement of a sincerely held religious belief or moral conviction of a school employee, school volunteer, pupil, or a pupil's parent or guardian."
Kevin Epling, whose son Matt Epling killed himself in 2002 after being bullied, said that the added language will allow anyone to bully a student and cite their religious beliefs. He has worked with lawmakers for years to developed anti-bullying legislation.
"This is just unconscionable. This is government-sanctioned bigotry," said Epling of East Lansing, who said he is "ashamed" that lawmakers added the language at the last minute.
Republican Gov. Rick Snyder wants Michigan to adopt an anti-bullying law.
Michigan would join at least 45 other states that have laws requiring public schools to adopt anti-bullying policies under legislation passed Wednesday by the Republican-led Senate. The bill was approved by a 26-11, party-line vote and now advances to the Republican-led House.
Democrats say the measure wouldn't protect students and want a more detailed measure that outlines reasons students can't be bullied, such as sexual orientation, race and weight.
Republican supporters of the proposal say requiring districts to develop policies would be a key step toward ensuring that efforts are being made to clamp down on students harassing classmates. "This bill may not be perfect, but it certainly gets us on the road to making sure that local communities pay attention to this problem and put a policy in place," said the bill's sponsor, Republican state Sen. Rick Jones of Grand Ledge.
Republicans argue that all students would be equally protected under the proposal. But Democrats were angered by the new language, saying it goes in the opposite direction of stopping bullying.
The policies would apply to cyber-bullying, but only cyber-bullying that occurs using a device owned or under the control of a school district. Epling said that concerns him because most cyber-bullying happens on personal electronic devices.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.