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New law acts to curb school bullying

Copyright © 2019 Albuquerque Journal

A heftier anti-bullying law is coming to New Mexico.

Milo Shimanek, 17, a student at Highland High School, thinks the new Safe Schools for All Students Act is a crucial step toward making schools feel safe for all students. (Jim Thompson/Albuquerque Journal)

And it is now explicitly inclusive of LGBTQ students – one of the big pushes advocates have striven for over the years.

Early this month, Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham signed into law Senate Bill 288, or the Safe Schools for All Students Act, which aims to create more accountability, training and reporting requirements around bullying.

By January 2020, all school boards in the state must adopt and enforce a slew of requirements, including creating a reporting system that involves students and parents, and outlining investigation procedures. Schools must launch an annual bullying prevention program for students and provide yearly training for employees.

These efforts will be overseen by the state Public Education Department, which is required under the act to enact rules that reinforce the anti-bullying initiatives. The law goes into effect July 1.

The state’s new law also spells out gender identity and sexual orientation – along with race, religion and ability among others – as bases of bullying that must be addressed by the district and school.

It’s a more comprehensive policy for students such as Milo Shimanek, 17, an openly transgender student at Highland High School.

“It’s so important. I wish that everyone could not feel like school is an unsafe environment,” Shimanek told the Journal.

Nearly 30 percent of lesbian and gay New Mexico students were bullied at school, compared to about 16 percent of heterosexual students, according to the 2017 New Mexico Youth Risk and Resiliency Survey. The rate of bullying at school climbs even higher – roughly 33 percent – for students who are transgender.

The act aims to make school safer for all kids.

The bill requires districts to have policies to prevent bullying at school, at school-sponsored events, on the bus and even through electronic communication.

And the policies must be extensive, with retaliation protection for people who report bullying and a list of consequences for offenders, while remaining flexible to address incidents case by case.

As for the reporting system, the act outlines that students must have access to report bullying orally in their preferred language, there should be mechanisms to keep reporters anonymous and parents should have means to report bullying, too.

School employees must also notify administration of bullying no later than two days after it happened.

“Safety support plans,” which are forward-looking plans to protect students who were bullied from being targets in the future, are also written into the bill.

A step toward respect

Shimanek says he knows first hand that being an LGBTQ student comes with specific, daily obstacles.

For instance, a teacher of his uses his old pronouns at school – a constant correction Shimanek has to make.

The teen says he feels like he’s always on guard.

“It’s stressful,” he said.

And the high school junior can’t remove his deadname – the feminine name given to him at birth – from the grade book, meaning every time there is a substitute teacher, it’s up to him to correct the instructor during class. Or, every time he accesses his online student portal, his former name and old photo are on display.

“That makes me feel bad. Everyone is grossed out by their seventh-grade photo … but me particularly, that doesn’t represent me at all,” he said.

Shimanek hopes this new law is a step in the direction toward inclusivity and respect for students who are in the LGBTQ community.

Getting this law passed has been years in the making.

Six years ago, a coalition of organizations in the state, including GLSEN – a teacher-founded group that aims to increase safety and inclusivity in schools – and Equality New Mexico, a local LGBTQ advocacy group, drafted a proposal for the Safe Schools for All Students Act, said Havens Levitt, GLSEN Albuquerque chairwoman.

While the proposal didn’t get out of committee for two sessions, Levitt said advocates have been pushing for the changes since.

She said a stronger law was definitely needed in the state.

“There was a weak law on the books, and it was weak in terms of reporting requirements from districts and no one followed up with it,” she said.

She added that it’s more important now than ever.

“Over the past couple of years, all sorts of organizations see an uptick in LGBTQ harassment,” she said.

And the chairwoman says she feels that’s been on the rise since President Donald Trump took office.

“His administration has taken many steps to overtly discriminate against LGBTQ people,” she said.

This year, the Department of Defense implemented its ban on transgender troops.

In 2017, the Justice Department filed a legal brief on behalf of the United States in the U.S. Supreme Court, arguing for a constitutional right for businesses to discern on the basis of sexual orientation and, implicitly, gender identity.

According to state-specific data from a 2017 GLSEN report, most schools in the state were unsafe for LGBTQ students, with the majority of kids hearing regular anti-LGBTQ remarks and most students in the LGBTQ community experiencing bullying.

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