Safe Schools Advocates Say Ruling “Sends a Message”

Todd Heywood

Safe-schools activists are hailing the recent ruling in a bullying lawsuit, saying it sends a clear message to school districts in Michigan.

Safe-schools activists are hailing the recent ruling in a bullying
lawsuit against the Hudson School District, west of Adrian, saying it
sends a clear message to school districts in Michigan.

The case revolves around the alleged harassment at Hudson Middle
School of a student identified as DP in court records. Starting in the
sixth grade, DP was subjected to verbal taunts (including "queer" and
"Mister Clean," a reported reference to his pubic hair) and physical
taunts, culminating in an alleged sexual assault in a locker room
following a junior varsity football game. The 6th Circuit Court of
Appeals voted two weeks ago to send the lawsuit back to district court, saying there were serious issues at hand in the case that need to be heard.

"I think it does send a message that on (the Appeals Court’s) behalf
that schools do have a responsibility to be looking at bullying on our
students," said Kevin Epling.

Epling’s son, Matt, committed suicide as a result of bullying that
his parents allege took place at a school in East Lansing. Safe-schools
legislation that has repeatedly been introduced in the state
Legislature has been named Matt’s Safe School Law in the boy’s honor.

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Activists have been trying for years to pass such a measure, which
would mandate bullying policies in all Michigan schools, but their
efforts have been hampered in the State Senate.

In the lame-duck session in December, Senate Majority Leader Alan
Cropsey, R-Dewitt, killed bills passed almost two years prior by the
state House, preventing them from getting a hearing in the Senate. The
legislation has been attacked by opponents like Cropsey and American
Family Association of Michigan’s Gary Glenn as supporting a so-called
homosexual agenda, because the bills list gender identity and
expression as well as sexual orientation as classes to be protected by
the law.

"No one says that these people (bullying victims) are L, B, G or T.
But the slurs are about their sexual orientation," said Bernadette
Brown, director of policy at Triangle Foundation in Detroit. Triangle
Foundation is a statewide anti-violence program that works with victims
of anti-gay violence and harassment, as well as lobbies for inclusive

"We have been having difficulty getting those words included," she said. "You can be harassed because of a perception."

Both Epling and Brown said they welcome the ruling and said it is
likely to play a role as they and other members of the Safe Schools
Coalition work to introduce and pass Matt’s Law in the current
legislative session. But Peters is also troubled by some of the
findings in the ruling, including its mention that at one point, the
Hudson victim was removed from the school by being placed a resource

"It sends a message – It’s OK (to bully)," Brown said. "They will
just remove the victim. If what the harassers want is the victim
removed, they win. Even if the student is moderately protected, nothing
changes. We can sort of protect them and avoid liability, but nothing
has changed. It does nothing for inclusion."

Brown was also disturbed by the final outcome of the sexual assault
charge. The alleged perpetrator, identified as LT, was originally
charged with assault to commit a felony and second-degree criminal
sexual conduct. He eventually pleaded guilty to a charge of disorderly

"How does assault with intent to commit a felony and [second-degree
criminal sexual conduct] get bumped down to a misconduct or disorderly
conduct?" Brown asked.

Epling said that if Matt’s Law had been in place, much of the harassment and bullying might have been prevented in this case.

"If Matt’s Law was in effect they would have had to have had a
policy in place," Epling said. "Having that policy can make a very
large difference to have the parents to go in and work with the school.
It is that community-wide aspect that is lacking."

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