Bill cracks down on school bullies

If the 16-year-old could leave the hospital, he may have testified Friday afternoon about a bullying incident that his father says left the boy emotionally and physically wounded.

But the father, Dee Gregory, took the stand instead, telling legislators that the teen has been hospitalized since February for bodily and psychological distress after others on his wrestling team allegedly stripped him, beat him with a spatula and urinated on him during a December 2010 tournament in Las Vegas.

"This is criminal behavior and it needs to stop," Gregory said. "Until the laws change there's nothing people can do to regain the lost credibility with the students who are victims."

While the students in the alleged hazing incident have been expelled and the coaches suspended from their coaching duties, Gregory is supporting a bill that would criminalize bullying.

SB275 seeks to make a first bullying offense a misdemeanor, a second offense a gross misdemeanor, and a third offense a low-level felony. It also specifies school employees, trustees and the Department of Education can be sued "if they are remiss in dealing with a bullying incident."

"To me, it's an educational process," said Sen. David Parks, D-Las Vegas, who is co-sponsoring SB275 with Sen. Sheila Leslie, D-Reno, and has sponsored anti-bullying legislation in previous sessions. "We need to do more. What I'm hoping for is that we improve the environment across the state."

The anti-bullying bill comes after several high-profile, bullying-related suicides in other states in recent months.

A 15-year-old Massachusetts teen committed suicide in January 2010 after classmates allegedly bullied her almost constantly since she moved from Ireland at the beginning of that school year.

In September 2010, a Rutgers University freshman jumped from a bridge after his roommate allegedly used a Web cam to tape his tryst with a man.

Opponents applauded the intent of the Nevada bill, but said the language is overly broad and the punishments "extreme."

SB275 defines bullying as any act, or verbal or written communication, that makes a student reasonably fear for his or her safety. It also includes anything that creates a hostile environment at school, on the school bus or adjacent to school premises.

Orrin Johnson of the Washoe County Public Defender's Office said egregious acts are already outlawed under other statutes, and criminalizing bullying would get students involved early with a criminal justice system they might not be able to get back out of.

He said that the middle- and high-school students targeted by the legislation aren't mature enough to understand the full impact of their behavior, and the schools are better equipped to handle disciplinary action.

School district representatives told legislators that programs to prevent and discipline bullies are already in place. A companion bill presented Friday - SB276 - would strengthen anti-bullying efforts at schools.

But for parents who testified about repeated bullying and slow response from adults in authority, the current system isn't enough.

"The system and the current law failed my son," Gregory said.


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