Matt Epling, from what I can see, looked like a decent, happy kid. According to his father he loved everyone around him and did his best to help other kids at school. Then, one day in the summer of 2002, Matt was apparently leaving work when he was set upon and assaulted in some type of hazing incident. Matt wasn’t seriously hurt but the experience was humiliating – so much so that, 40 days later, just before he was supposed to give a statement to police about the incident, he took his own life. He was 14 years old. He had reportedly been threatened by the kids who hazed him and the authorities had been hesitant to get involved.
Today I got an email from Change.org. Mostly I like to stay informed on what other sides of different issues are saying. Here was the body of that email:
“When Katy Butler was in junior high, bullies who called her a “dyke” slammed a locker door on her hand. Katy never reported the assault because she was afraid her school wouldn’t do anything to help.
If the Michigan state Senate has its way, Katy’s school won’t have to help students bullied in the future, either.
Last week, the Michigan state Senate passed an anti-bullying bill. But minutes before they voted, Republican lawmakers inserted special language into the bill to create a huge loophole: Bullying done because of a “sincerely held religious or moral conviction” isn’t covered by the law.
Rather than protecting students, the new law actually provides a road map that teaches kids how to bully — and how to get away with it.”
On its face, this is enough to anger anyone. They’re making this into an anti-gay bullying issue, and the MSM has happily followed that narrative. It doesn’t even mention Matt or his parents, nor does it give the name of the bill that was passed. All you see in the email (this is common with Change.org) is a story meant to make your blood boil. No facts and figures, no links to news sources, just a story, one given a great deal of spin.
The reality is, however, that not only was the anti-bullying measure in Michigan – known as “Matt’s Safe School Law” – short and succinct, but the claims from Change.org and Democratic leaders in the Michigan House of Representatives are patently false. Matt’s father, Kevin Epling, echoed Michigan representative Gretchen Whitmer in a very emotionally-charged attack on the phrase that was added to the bill to get it to pass.
You can see the bill in its entirety here. It isn’t long at all. It defines bullying essentially as abusive behavior targeted at one or more students, requires all school districts to adopt policies specific to stopping bullying (as well as false accusations of bullying), and makes clear that there is to be no retaliation allowed. Pretty clear-cut, right? The problem here is that, even in its definition of bullying, there is still a pretty gray area. Different people would define certain situations in different ways. What I consider bullying may be very different from what you consider bullying. I, however, actually WAS bullied all throughout my childhood, so I have a bit of a different perspective. I have even been bullied as an adult in places where I worked. I see the answer to this issue being very, very different from what is going on right now.
We already have laws in place that address instances of serious bullying. Harassment, assault, battery, threatening and intimidation – all of these things are illegal and can result in serious criminal charges. I can tell you right now that the ambiguous nature of these new anti-bullying laws is only going to make a bigger mess of things.
There is not one single law that could have stopped any of the bullying I endured as a kid. Legally, the schools had no power over anything that happened off campus. If the internet had been around back then the torment never would have ended. Today, however, there are also laws that didn’t apply when I was a kid. Nobody would have dreamed of having a group of kids arrested and charged with harassment for bullying when I was Matt’s age, but now it can happen and it should. If there is a group of kids deliberately targeting a classmate simply for the sport of torturing another human being, then yes, bring them up on charges – on laws that we already have on the books.
So what is the big hubbub about the law right now? It’s a provision that was added by MI House Republicans. Scroll down to section 8 and you’ll see this: “This section does not prohibit a statement of a sincerely held religious belief or moral conviction of a school employee, school volunteer, pupil, or a pupil’s parent or guardian.”
I can tell you exactly what that section is meant for, but the liberals are deliberately spinning it as a heartless move on the part of conservatives in order to get it removed and shame people who don’t deserve to be shamed. The phrase is meant to protect those who are religious, particularly Christians and Catholics, from accusations of bullying simply for stating their belief that pre-marital sex and homosexuality are wrong. The concern that this law could be applied to such circumstances is not without merit. Just last month, 14-year-old Dakota Ary was suspended after saying during a discussion in his German class that, as a Christian, he believed homosexuality to be a sin. He didn’t announce it to the whole class; he merely said it as an aside to a classmate behind him. The teacher, who had introduced homosexual issues to a completely unrelated class before, blew a gasket, wrote Dakota up and had him suspended (the teacher, Kristopher Franks, has told a different story, one that I question).
If I were to wear a gay pride shirt to a college class, nobody would think anything of it; if one of my classmates wore a straight pride shirt to the same class, everyone would be outraged. That has been done before, too, in Minneapolis and recently in Chicago. People complain that such messages “may be perceived as hurtful.” I’m sorry, but you are going to hear things in life that you will disagree with, and you may find some of those things hurtful, but you do not need a law to protect your feelings. People will, in your adult years, say far worse things to you than anyone you went to school with said. I’ve had people I worked with make fun of me, circulate inappropriate emails about me, threaten me, and they rarely – if ever – get disciplined. I promise, though, if I had ever made mention of any religious belief, I would have been disciplined so fast my head would be spinning. Yes, there is a reason why they wanted that language in that bill.
The thing that irritates me the most about that email and the public statements disparaging that simple phrase in the bill is that it deliberately misleads people to believe that religious belief alone will justify physical abuse. Nothing could possibly justify assault and hateful slurs. It is a roundabout way of lying so that you can trick people who don’t pay attention to the facts into following you. It is 100% wrong.
I have news for you, Rep. Whitmer: even without the language, this bill would not save a single life. The only way you’re going to save a kid from committing suicide is to be deeply involved in every aspect of their life. Don’t give them too much privacy; read their text messages, blogs and emails. Use parental blocks. Know where they are at all times. Teenagers are not little adults. They’re still kids. Their brains are still developing, their hormones are trying to balance themselves, and they’re trying to find their place in the world around them.
It is a tragedy that any kid would commit suicide because they felt they had no support from classmates and the harassment was just too much. I am not for one moment downplaying the intense grief that the Epling family is still experiencing and will struggle with for the rest of their lives. Grief, sadness and anger, however, do not give a person license to twist the truth. The phrase added to that bill has been called “a how-to guide for bullying”. Such untruths are just as intolerant and tragic as the lies told by bullies to justify their behavior. As a survivor, I’m ashamed that this is the game being played.