Perdue signs two controversial, historic bills

Anti-bullying, sex ed bills praised by advocates

by Matt Comer  Editor  editor@goqnotes.com
Published: July 11, 2009 in Cover Stories

While LGBT community members celebrated the 40th anniversary of the Stonewall Riots this June, political advocates, insiders and state legislators were working hard to hear and pass two historic, yet highly controversial, bills, the School Violence Prevention Act and Healthy Youth Act. Both have huge implications for LGBT students, both were fought bitterly by “traditional values” proponents and both were signed by Gov. Beverly Perdue.

Anti-bullying law
On June 23, the North Carolina House of Representatives put the legislature’s final stamp of approval on the long awaited School Violence Prevention Act (SVPA). Gov. Perdue signed it on June 30.

The SVPA mandates that all local school districts in the state adopt strong anti-bullying policies by the end of this year. The policies are to include a list of enumerated categories outlining those students who are most at-risk and vulnerable to bullying; the list includes sexual orientation and gender-identity.

Contentious debate
Before the SVPA’s passage, representatives spoke at length for and against the bill during two rounds of hour-and-a-half debates on the House floor.

Chief House sponsor Rep. Rick Glazier (D-Cumberland) said that in all the arguments he’d heard against it, not one person had ever claimed the SVPA wouldn’t protect children. He said opponents’ chief arguments were against the inclusion of protections for LGBT students.

“No one would have voted against a bill with enumeration if it didn’t have sexual orientation in it; we all know that,” he said. “This isn’t about whether you agree or disagree with homosexuality. It isn’t about morality, policies or sexuality.”

Echoing similar anti-gay statements made previously during committee debates on the act, House Minority Leader Paul “Skip” Stam (R-Wake) said the SVPA could open the doors to same-sex marriage. He said evidence presented by proponents for its adoption was “anecdotal.”

Rep. Tricia Cotham (D-Mecklenburg) said legislators had a “moral obligation” to protect students.

“Opponents of this bill believe there are some children not worth protecting,” she said. “It is time for North Carolina to stand up for all of our children so that each child can develop his or her God-given talents.”

Several Republicans offered amendments they claimed would have made the bill stronger. Democrats said Republicans were simply attempting to derail its progress.

One such amendment was Stam’s attempt to exclude protection of “pedophilia, sexual masochism or sexual sadism.” He said neither “sexual orientation” nor “gender-identity” had been defined in law.

Sen. Julia Boseman, the state’s only openly gay or lesbian state legislator and chief sponsor of the bill in the Senate, told Q-Notes she thought Stam’s and others’ actions were “unfortunate” and “reprehensible.”

Every amendment was voted down. Six Democrats joined 51 Republicans in opposing the act in its final vote.

Leaders react
After years of work on the issue, safe schools advocates across the state praised the SVPA’s historic passage.

The measure is the first state law to include protections on the basis of sexual orientation and gender-identity to ever pass both chambers of the General Assembly. Furthermore, the SVPA is only aiming a handful of laws nationwide to protect students on the basis of gender-identity, and the first in the entire South.

Ian Palmquist, executive director of Equality North Carolina, told Q-Notes his organization was “thrilled” to get the act passed and sent to the governor. The work, he said, isn’t over yet.

“We plan on working with the Department of Public Instruction to ensure local districts have the resources they need to put these policies in place,” he said. “Hopefully, districts can go beyond the policies to implement strong anti-bullying programs.”

Boseman was also pleased with the result.

“I am very happy that the State of North Carolina is going to do what we can to protect the most vulnerable children,” she said. “This bill was about protecting kids, not about gay marriage or special rights.”

Anti-gay groups also reacted to the bill’s passage.

“No student should be bullied anywhere at anytime. And if we thought this bullying bill would help, we’d be rejoicing,” Christian Action League executive director Rev. Mark Creech said in an article posted on his organization’s website. “Instead it will serve only to open the door to gay marriage a bit wider by providing legal precedence to specially protected categories.”

The Christian Action League was one of several anti-gay groups lobbying against the SVPA. In talking points they sent out to state legislators, the Christian Action League said the bill was “primarily intended to create special rights for homosexuals” and was “primarily a way for activist groups to involve the schools in a bit of social engineering and sensitivity training.”

Advocates say it wouldn’t be a complete surprise to see anti-gay organizations continue to fight the law’s implementation and that some of that opposition might continue to crop up from school boards, too.

“I imagine we’ll see some grandstanding from conservative school board members around the state,” Palmquist said. “Ultimately, they will comply with the law.”

Winston-Salem resident Janet Joyner, one of several early safe schools advocates in the state, said the SVPA creates a clear and concise “mandate” to protect all children. She said teachers will now have the “the tools that actually work in reducing hostile school climates.”

Sex ed revamp
As the SVPA wound its way through the North Carolina legislature, another highly controversial bill was also being heard by members of the General Assembly.

The Healthy Youth Act, also now law, updates the state’s current abstinence-until-marriage sex ed curriculum by adding a more comprehensive abstinence-based education approach to the courses. While students in grades seven through nine will continue to be taught the state’s traditional abstinence-based curriculum, they will also learn about the use of condoms and be provided more accurate, up-to-date information on sexually transmitted infections and prevention methods.

Like the SVPA, the bill was signed by Perdue on June 30.

Advocate: Law is improvement
Palmquist told Q-Notes that the HYA is “an incredible step forward” and will guarantee “getting lifesaving information to young people in this state.”

But, the new law isn’t perfect nor entirely LGBT-affirming. It is a reality Palmquist acknowledges.

The new statute will continue to include language from the state’s anti-gay abstinence-until-marriage curriculum. One portion of the statute requires local school districts to teach “that a mutually faithful monogamous heterosexual relationship in the context of marriage is the best lifelong means of avoiding sexually transmitted diseases, including HIV/AIDS.”

Palmquist said his organization’s strategy “from the beginning” was to make sure that any comprehensive sex ed curriculum requirement never included the anti-gay language that’s been codified in state law for years.

The original House version of the bill offered two curriculum choices for parents, one comprehensive and the other abstinence-only. When the bill was sent to the Senate, legislators combined the two tracks into one, modeling the curriculum requirement after the old abstinence-only law and adding a comprehensive portion to the end.

“When the Senate passed their version, we did let folks in the House know that we’d prefer them not concur and that they fix that problem,” Palmquist explained. “There was a sense that if the bill ended up going to conference, then there would be a possibility that it would not be done this year.”

Palmquist said he was “extremely disappointed” the Senate chose to keep the anti-LGBT provision, language he called “problematic.”.