Lesbian State Rep. Kelly Cassidy introduced Illinois House Bill 5290 to bolster the state’s anti-bullying code, including cyberbullying, by creating model policies for schools to implement in 2013. The House approved the measure in March, but it failed in the Senate on May 22 by one vote.
In its initial drafts, HB 5290 added protected classes to the current code —including appearance, homelessness, socioeconomic status, academic status, pregnancy and parenting status — that were axed 24 hours before the Illinois House approved the bill.
There aren’t many laws targeted at cyberbullying, but offenders can be charged people with harassment by electronic means. Usually cases escalate once threats are involved, and law enforcement will make arrests if the harassment doesn’t stop.
“There are no laws against talking stupid, but there are laws against threats,” said Detective Alan Krok, a member of the Chicago Police Department Special Investigation Unit and of the Internet Crimes Against Children Task Force. “Be careful. What you post can get you in trouble.”
In one case Krok worked on, a boy was being harassed by a peer who made fake Facebook accounts and posted comments calling him gay. His fellow students piled on with additional hurtful comments, with the harassment continuing at school. Finally, the boy called Krok to tell him he couldn’t bear the bullying any longer and he was going to kill himself.
“When you’re online saying this stuff, you don’t see the person on the other end crying,” said Krok. “It’s the message we give to kids in the first grade. It’s the golden rule — ‘Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.’”
HB 5290 is an amendment to current anti-bullying legislation that would mandate restorative justice measures for offenders, like education, emotional support, counseling and other community-based solutions intended to address root causes of bullying.
“These are not bad kids at all. Bullying has gone on forever. They’re just taking advantage of the technology,” said Krok. “And many of [the bullies] have problems at home and school, things aren’t going well for them.”
Schools and districts were first required to create anti-bullying policies in 2007, but the law did not stipulate specifics about the policies, according to a statement from State Sen. Heather Steans, a co-sponsor of HB 5290. In 2010, legislation to define bullying was passed, expressly prohibiting bullying on actual or perceived race, sex, religion, age, disability, sexual orientation and gender identity.
The General Assembly also created the School Bullying Prevention Task Force to study the problem and recommend additional legislative solutions. The task force found that some districts had policies that were vague and did not provide information on the school’s strategy for preventing and addressing bullying.
Critics of the bill contend it will require schools to teach students about homosexuality in a way that conflicts with their religious beliefs, but the existing bullying provision in the school code contains a statement that no bullying-related requirements on schools are intended to infringe on a student’s freedom of religion.
“The bill was raised in the Senate as ‘part of the homosexual agenda.’ The homophobic things people said on the Senate floor were disgusting,” said Matt Muir, district office director for Cassidy. “But prospects look good. We were only down by one vote.”
The bill is not LGBT-specific. Rather, it adds to the current code, which already contains LGBT protections along with several other identity categories.
But the anti-bullying bill is not dead, it has just been postponed. The Senate could vote on it again this week before the legislative session ends, according to Muir. It could also be voted on again during the veto session near the end of the term, when the legislature meets to consider overriding vetoes by the governor.
“The bill is just one vote shy of the required majority, and it is likely [State] Sen. Steans will try again before the session ends in the next week,” according to a statement passed out at the event.
“Obviously cyberbullying is becoming a pretty big issue with the rise of Facebook and other sites,” said Muir. “This is something really important to Kelly and Heather, and we’ll keep pushing on it.”
UPDATE: The Illinois Senate rejected the proposed anti-bullying legislation again on May 29. The vote was 29-21, just one vote shy of passing.