CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- Changes to a statewide education policy to protect gay and lesbian students from bullying have spurred legislation that would tweak a 1-year-old state law also addressing bullying.
The Senate Judiciary committee sent a bill altering the law to the full Senate Friday. The bill would revise the definition of bullying and would reinforce that enforcement and educating students about the bullying law and policies should not limit the free speech, religious or political beliefs of students.
State education officials are tracking the bill's progress to see if it would trigger the Board of Education to revisit its anti-bullying policy. Adopted in December, the policy provides stronger protections to all students, including gay, lesbian and bisexual students. It would also address online and digital bullying that extends beyond school grounds.
Opponents of the board's new policy claimed it promoted the homosexual agenda and now groups like the Family Policy Council hope the proposed statute changes would prevent teachers and school administrators from censoring the speech of students whose religious beliefs don't accept homosexuality.
Jeremiah Dys, president for the family council, argues the state policy and the law should govern the bully's behavior, not subjective thoughts. Also, certain classes of victims should also not receive more protection than other students, he said.
"We think the rules covering bullying in the state should apply equally to all students," Dys said.
Dys said the current policy gives teachers and administrators too much power to determine what is considered offensive and outside the bounds of accepted social behavior, and that that could lead to censoring students.
"They shouldn't be afraid of sharing the gospel to other students who hold themselves out to be homosexual," Dys said of students.
The current version of the bill would bring West Virginia's law more in line with court precedents that protect student speech, but the council is still hoping to change the bill further if it moves through the House of Delegates, he said.
Alyson Clements, with the American Civil Liberties Union of West Virginia, said the references to free speech included in the bill are redundant because all state laws must comply with the U.S. Constitution.
"We feel the bill passed last year was really strong. It was broad enough and still included First Amendment protections," Clements said.
The proposed definition of bullying is narrower than current law but the intent of the law would not be altered, she said.