A Homophobic Group Killed Arizona's Anti-Bullying Law
Arizona Senate Minority Leader David Schapira tried to address bullying in the state's school districts this year.
Schapira — an instructor at Arizona State University, a former high school teacher in the Paradise Valley School District, a member of Tempe Union High School District governing board, and a ranking member of Senate Education Committee — knows the ins and outs of the state's education system.
The Democrat offered a bill to establish a standard definition of bullying for all school districts and to broaden the requirements for the districts' policies and employee training.
Schapira's legislation never made it to the desk of Governor Jan Brewer, but this wasn't because of inefficiencies in the bill or a lack of prospective votes.
After successfully making it through a series of committees and a vote by the Senate, the bill was held in the House, losing its chance at becoming a law.
The force behind the killing of the bill last term, Schapira says, was powerhouse lobbyist Cathi Herrod of the Center for Arizona Policy, which describes itself on its website as "dedicated to influencing our culture through the proclamation of biblical truth."
Schapira says, "Herrod made it very, very clear that the reason she wanted my bill dead was because she felt it was just focused on gay kids. Now, the words 'sexual orientation' or 'gay' were never mentioned anywhere in my bill or referenced. Basically, Cathi Herrod is so focused on ensuring that gay kids aren't protected that she killed a bill that protects all kids."
Indeed, homophobia is a big part of what the Center for Arizona Policy is all about.
The group's Guide to Family Issues speaks for itself.
"There is a deliberate, concerted effort by homosexual activists to gain access to public school children in order to influence and indoctrinate them into embracing homosexual behavior as a legitimate choice among a whole range of 'lifestyle' options," states a section in the guide titled "Homosexuality in Public Schools."
That same guide declares homosexuality a choice, claims pornography "has been linked" to rapes, child molestations, and serial killers and makes other moralistic declarations.
Bills attempting to rid Arizona law of homophobia in its standards for HIV education in school — which explicitly bans "portray[ing] homosexuality as a positive alternative lifestyle," among other things — repeatedly have been met with opposition from Herrod and her organization and remain law to this day.
With one hand on the Bible, the Center for Arizona Policy continuously has increased its grip on the Legislature, as 13 of the group's bills were signed into law this legislative session, bringing its grand total to 114 laws since 1995.
Speaking out against Schapira's bill on her blog — foreshadowing the bill's death — Herrod reiterated the conspiracy theory about gay indoctrination, as the lobbyist declared her vision of how public schools ought to run:
"Not only are [bullying bills] a thinly veiled attempt to allow political groups into our schools, they also divert the focus of our school system off the fundamentals," she wrote. "Class time should be for reading, writing, and arithmetic."
Tell that to people like Caleb Laieski, a teenager who dropped out of high school in Surprise because of anti-gay bullying, after he was threatened and even followed home by some of his classmates.
Laieski's story, though, is one of the few bullying stories that made headlines for reasons not related to suicide.
He's now a major advocate for lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender kids, even meeting with members of Congress and President Barack Obama to talk about federal protection of LGBT youngsters.
Locally, Laieski has landed a spot in Phoenix Mayor Greg Stanton's office for a few hours a week as a youth-diversity liaison, and he sometimes teams up with Phoenix's first lady, Nicole France Stanton, who's also working on anti-bullying initiatives.
"Caleb's case is a perfect example of a child who was [bullied] repeatedly in the school environment, and he ended up dropping out of school," Nicole Stanton says. "He's the textbook example of what a child looks like when [he or she is] bullied."
Stanton knows what textbook examples of bullying look like. Her older brother was bullied in high school, which she says "culminated in a physical assault of a significant magnitude."
She also realizes that while bullying is getting more attention, it's clear that some people don't understand what constitutes bullying as they deride the need for anti-bullying legislation, mostly in the form of the "kids being kids" defense. A "definitional problem," she calls it.
"We're not trying to control niceness and civility," Stanton says. "I'm trying to deal with bullying."
As Schapira says, "When a kid feels unsafe in the learning environment — when they're more focused on the teasing and the physical threats that are coming from their classmates than they are on their learning — that's where we have to draw the line."
According to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, Arizona is one of only eight states without a "model policy" setting standards for school districts on how to address bullying.
The law setting the standard for anti-bullying policies in Arizona, passed by the Legislature in 2005, calls for districts to set their own policies and definitions.
Schapira sees gaps in the current law that he's been trying to fill, as districts' own definitions of bullying can cause under-reporting, and educators and other school district employees aren't trained to recognize that bullying is taking place.
"I think one of the greatest things that causes kids to take their own lives . . . is going to an adult, and the adult says, 'Well, just don't worry about it. You know, sticks and sticks will break your bones,' or, 'Come on, that's just kids being kids,'" Schapira says. "That is not the right way to handle bullying."
Nicole Stanton and Schapira say they expect a similar bill to the one killed in the Legislature to appear in the next session. For now, Arizonans just have to hope — or pray, if you will — that students don't commit suicide or get injured because of anti-gay legislation.
Get the Weekly Newsletter
Our weekly feature stories, movie reviews, calendar picks and more - minus the newsprint and sent directly to your inbox.