Weekend open thread: No bullies edition

Iowa marked an anniversary on September 1: three years since all accredited schools in the state had to start implementing the Iowa Safe Schools law. I wasn't able to attend the event celebrating this milestone, but I looked up more information on Senate File 61, "an act relating to the establishment of state and school antiharassment and antibullying policies." The Iowa legislature passed this law in March 2007, thanks to the leadership of State Representative Roger Wendt and State Senator Mike Connolly. Governor Chet Culver signed it right away, but it didn't take effect until September 1.

The law defined "harassment" and "bullying" as "any electronic, written, verbal, or physical act or conduct toward a student which is based on any actual or perceived trait or characteristic of the student and which creates an objectively hostile school environment [...]." The law further defined "trait or characteristic of the student" as any of the following 17 categories: "age, color, creed, national origin, race, religion, marital status, sex, sexual orientation, gender identity, physical attributes, physical or mental ability or disability, ancestry, political party preference, political belief, socioeconomic status, or familial status."

That's quite an inclusive list, but you won't be surprised to learn that when this bill was under consideration, activists on the religious right opposed what they characterized as special rights for the LGBT community. I read through the bill history for Senate File 61 and downloaded the Iowa House and Senate journals for the days the bill was debated on the floor. Republicans offered one weakening amendment after another, most of which were rejected or withdrawn. But in the end, six Iowa Senate Republicans joined all 30 Democrats in the upper chamber to pass the bill. Nine Iowa House Republicans joined 53 Democrats in the lower chamber to pass the bill.

Although their votes weren't needed to pass Senate File 61, the Republicans who sought to reduce bullying and harassment in Iowa schools should be commended. They went against their caucus leaders on that vote. Many represented suburban districts where tolerance for the LGBT community is more widespread.

Sadly, to my knowledge none of the Republican legislators who voted for this bill in 2007 attended the September 1 celebration, nor did any current Republican elected official or candidate. (Someone please correct me if I'm wrong.) According to a source who was there, the crowd included First Lady Mari Culver and many other Iowa Democrats, but only one well-known Republican: former Lieutenant Governor Joy Corning. Her pro-equality stance has been known to send Republicans into conniption fits.

State Senator Brad Zaun's vote for the bullying bill briefly became an issue in this year's GOP primary in the third Congressional district. Although he offered a couple of weakening amendments and voted for many others during the Iowa Senate floor debate, Zaun ultimately recognized the importance of this bill. Kids should not be bullied in school. Too bad that's not a politically correct position for the Republican base.

Speaking of schools, the U.S. Department of Education formally approved $96.5 million for Iowa school districts last week. The funding came from the fiscal aid package Congress approved last month. Governor Chet Culver hailed the decision:

"This will allow our schools to recover almost completely from the difficult budget cuts created by the economic downturn. It will mean more teachers staying on the job and fewer students per classroom. I encourage school districts to use these funds immediately to offset previous budget cuts, as that is the intent of the Education Jobs Act."

Republican gubernatorial candidate Terry Branstad opposed the bill that allocated extra federal funds to state education and Medicaid budgets. If he and Congressional Republicans had gotten their way, many Iowa teachers would not have their jobs back. In my children's school district, elementary school students would have less time for art, music and physical education.

This is an open thread. What's up with you this weekend, Bleeding Heartland readers?  

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