FRANKFORT — The House Education Committee rejected an anti-bullying bill Tuesday after hearing emotional pleas from the parents and friends of teens who committed suicide in recent months.
"If this bill does not get on to the House, if it does not get through the Senate, my daughter's death will be in vain," said Travis Campbell of Hopkinsville, whose 14-year-old bisexual daughter committed suicide on Feb. 4.
House Bill 336, sponsored by Democratic Rep. Mary Lou Marzian of Louisville, would require schools to have a code of conduct that bans bullying and harassment motivated by a student's race, religion, sexual orientation, gender identity or learning disabilities.
It fell two votes short of having the majority needed to clear the committee. The tally was 13 votes in favor, 10 against and three passes. All Republicans voted against the bill, except two who passed.
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Several lawmakers on the panel contended that existing anti-bullying laws are sufficient. Some said the proposal had more to do with gay rights than bullying.
Rep. Ben Waide, R-Madisonville, called the bill an attempt "to achieve equality by making some people more equal than others."
He said the measure was not about bullying but "about gay rights in our schools."
Marzian took exception to a question from Waide about what would happen when Christian students questioned gay students about their lifestyles.
She said her bill does not harm freedom of religion and that she did not like Waide's implication that a gay student could not be a Christian.
Darryl and Carol Denham of Northern Kentucky and Campbell pleaded with the committee to approve the bill.
Sam Denham, 13, an eighth-grader from a Northern Kentucky middle school, and Miranda Campbell, 14, a high school freshman from Hopkinsville, committed suicide in the past five months to escape bullying, they said.
Denham said his son, who was not gay, killed himself in October after he was bullied and assaulted at school.
"What does it take to get schools to address these problems?" he asked. "No child should be afraid to go to school because of bullying."
Campbell showed lawmakers the bullet that he said took his daughter's life.
"I made a pledge on her death bed — make something good come of this," he said.
His daughter was "condemned" at school because she was bisexual, he said.
"Teachers have often turned a blind eye to bullying because of sexual orientation," Campbell said.
State lawmakers approved a broad anti-bullying law in 2008, but supporters contend it overlooks certain students. Marzian said her latest proposal would allow parents of bullied students to have more ammunition in telling school officials about their children. It does not contain any penalties for violations.
Rep. C.B. Embry Jr., R-Morgantown, said the state already has sufficient laws against bullying. He expressed doubt that any additional laws could help.
"We have a death penalty against rape and murder but they still happen," he said.
Rep. Addia Wuchner, R-Burlington, called Marzian's bill "just more verbiage."
Rep. Ruth Ann Palumbo, D-Lexington, expressed disgust with the comments of some panel members and apologized to those who testified on behalf of the committee. She mentioned that she is a parent of a suicide victim.
Rep. Derrick Graham, D-Frankfort, said the bill was needed. As a teacher, Graham said he has seen students bullied because they are obese.
Marzian said she was "astounded by the lack of compassion by these Republicans who claim they care about people but, obviously, they don't. It's typical of their all-talk-but-no-action BS."
Chris Hartman, director of the Louisville-based Fairness Campaign, said he was "flabbergasted" by the committee vote.
"They told those grieving parents to their faces that because of politics they were not going to pass this legislation," he said.
The Family Foundation of Kentucky opposed the bill.
"We believe that everyone should be protected at school," said spokesman Martin Cothran, "and we think that unless school safety laws apply to everyone, no matter who they are and why the bullying was done, they create second-class citizens in the law."