Wednesday, June 30, 2004

Mississippi's Empty Defense 

Yesterday I posted on the OUTLaws blog about the recent Gay, Lesbian and Straight Education Network's (GLSEN) first annual report on the safety of schools, particularly for GLBT students. The state of Mississippi fell last in the rankings, actually receiving a score of -3, the only sub-zero grade.

Today CNSNews (an "other side" website I actually enjoy reading, because while they definitely put their conservative and anti-gay spin on their news stories, they put effort into not engaging in inflammatory rhetoric and they do make the original sources available through links. Many of these sites don't provide direct access to the source material for their readers, lest they see a different point of view) announced that they had received a response letter from Dr. Henry L. Johnson, State Superintendant of Education for Mississippi.

The strongest defense presented by the Superintendant, and touted by CSNNews, is that Mississippi has strong anti-bullying laws, regardless of the reason. From his statement:

"Bullying for any reason is unacceptable. Mississippi has one of the statistically safest school systems in the U.S. Mississippi does, in fact, have some of the strongest school safety and anti-bullying laws in the US. In fact, it is a misdemeanor to bully a student to the point that student is afraid to attend class for any reason. We have had 6 prosecutions under this law in the last 3 years."

Let's take a closer look at the statute in question, which is listed in Sec. 37-11-20 of the Mississippi Dept. of Education School Safety Manual along with their own translation of the statute:

"SEC. 37-11-20. Intimidation, threatening or coercion of students for purpose of interfering with attendance of classes.

It shall be unlawful for any person to intimidate, threaten or coerce, or attempt to intimidate, threaten or coerce, whether by illegal force, threats of force or by the distribution of intimidating, threatening or coercive material, any person enrolled in any school for the purpose of interfering with the right of that person to attend school classes or of causing him not to attend such classes.

Upon conviction of violation of any provision of this section, such individual shall be guilty of a misdemeanor and shall be subject to a fine of not to exceed five hundred dollars ($500.00), imprisonment in jail for a period not to exceed six (6) months, or both. Any person under the age of seventeen (17) years who violates any provision of this section shall be treated as a delinquent within the jurisdiction of the youth court.

TRANSLATION: It is illegal to intimidate or use threats or distribute material calculated to prevent a person from enrolling or attending school or classes. This is legislation from the "civil rights" era that is highly applicable to policies regarding bullying, protests, boycotts, and student walkouts. You can charge a bully under this statute if the victim is afraid to come to school.
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Note the inclusion of the condition "for the purpose of interfering with the right of that person to attend school classes or of causing him not to attend such classes." So just picking on a kid because he or she is perceived to be gay would not be sufficient for prosecution under this law. The actors would have to be specifically attempting to prevent the target from coming to school.

I also find it interesting how the translation describes the origin of the statute, setting of the phrase "civil rights" in quotations, and making a specific attempt to link the targeted behavior to protests, boycotts and student walkouts. Do the quotes somehow indicate that the civil rights era was not valid? Does it not count as bullying if it is not done as a mass protest, boycott or walkout? This doesn't really sound like the appropriate statute to be pulling out in defense of protecting gay kids from daily harrassment from fellow students and/or teachers.

The phrasing of the next statute would work much better, but it applies to the protection of superintendants, principals, teachers and bus drivers.

"SEC. 37-11-21. Abuse of superintendent, principal, teacher, or bus driver.

If any parent, guardian or other person, shall abuse any superintendent, principal, teacher or school bus driver while school is in session or at a school-related activity, in the presence of school pupils, such person shall be guilty of a misdemeanor and, upon conviction, shall be punished by a fine of not less than Ten Dollars ($10.00) nor more than Fifty Dollars ($50.00).

TRANSLATION: It is illegal to abuse (physically or verbally), administrators, faculty or bus drivers in the presence of students at a school related activity. Policies regarding conduct at events, and other activities are supported by this statute. It doesn’t have a lot of power since the fine is only $10-$50. It can, however, be added to other charges.


I'm wondering why they don't make an equivalent statute for students. They don't have to specify sexual orientation or gender identity. Just all students. Something like: "If any parent, guardian, student or other person, shall abuse any superintendent, principal, teacher, school bus driver or student while school is in session or at a school-related activity, in the presence of school pupils or staff, such person shall be guilty of a misdemeanor and, upon conviction, shall be punished by a fine of not less than Ten Dollars ($10.00) nor more than Fifty Dollars ($50.00)."

Now that would be a statute designed to protect students and staff from abuse at the hands of bullies.

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Posted by Beth Henderson at 2:02 PM