The problem of school bullying and possible ways to address it are sure to draw plenty of attention in Austin during next year's legislative session.
The issue has gained traction nationally following a rash of high-profile suicides by youths who were allegedly bullied for being gay, including Asher Brown, 13, of Houston, who shot himself with his father’s handgun, and Tyler Clementi, 18, who jumped off the George Washington Bridge in New York.
State Sen. Wendy Davis of Fort Worth and state Rep. Mark Strama or Austin, both Democrats, have filed nearly identical bills that would require school districts to develop strategies to combat bullying including cyber-bullying. Under both measures, districts would have to train school employees on the issue and launch an educational program geared toward students and parents.
Their proposals, among at least seven filed so far, would also require school districts to immediately notify a parent or guardian of a student involved in a bullying incident and gives school boards the power to transfer a student that is being bullied to another school or campus.
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Strama's bill recently received the backing of Facebook, a social networking site which has offices in Austin and has faced criticism in the past for not doing enough to combat cyber-bullying."Facebook supports the bill and we are encouraged to see the Texas legislature take steps to keep our schools places where students can feel safe," Corey Owens, a lobbyist for Facebook, wrote in a letter to Strama. "As a company with a significant presence in Texas – including employees who send their children to Texas public schools – we are committed to building an online platform that is safe for users of all ages."
Fort Worth Councilman Joel Burns, who became an Internet phenomenon in October by delivering an emotional speech on gay bullying, has publicly backed Davis' bill.
"I have focused the message on the responsibility of adults to end bullying by creating a culture of respect," Burns said. "The reporting tools in Sen. Davis' bill will give us the data we need to prioritize resources and understand how we can do better educating and supporting children to learn and be a success."
Strama's and Davis' bills differ in one area drawing the attention of some gay rights activists. Both bills require districts to annually report how many bullying incidents they faced, including how many incidents were based on race, ethnicity, religion or sexual orientation. Davis said she included “gender identity and expression” to her list of categories to make sure districts looked at bullying situations that arose due to “a perception of someone’s sexuality rather than the reality.” Strama said that phrase might be added to his bill as well.
Strama filed a similar bill last session and said he sees more momentum around the issue this time around.
“I think frankly there will be more support in the coming session because the issue has received even more attention in the intervening year and a half,” Strama said.