The Grade Blog

Tuesday, Oct 02 2012 02:29 PM

Is it bullying or is it free speech?

By THE BAKERSFIELD CALIFORNIAN

A couple of Kern High School District board members expressed concern Monday about the implementation of new guidelines in compliance with Seth's Law, which requires school districts to establishes a process for receiving and investigating complaints of discrimination, harassment, intimidation and bullying.

After Director of Instruction Vickie Spanos and Director of Pupil Personnel Services Otis Jennings presented the KHSD plan, board member Chad Vegas wanted more detail on how bullying was defined.

He gave a hypothetical example of a discussion about current events in a high school civics class in which a student expressed a political position that differed from another student's. Could someone be accused of bullying for exercising their right to express a political or religious belief?

Vegas added that he'd been targeted for intimidation after he publicly supported Proposition 8, a statewide ballot measure that banned gay marriage.

KHSD Assistant Superintendent of Instruction Mike Zulfa replied that the statute contains language that only speech that a "reasonable" person would find offensive would trigger an investigation, and that to constitute bullying, the offense would have to occur on an ongoing basis and interfere with a student's ability to function on campus and learn.

Board member Mike Williams said he hadn't considered the scenario Vegas raised and found it troubling. Students need to feel free to express an "honest opinion" without being accused of a hate crime, he said.

Vegas added that he didn't find the "reasonable" language comforting.

"I'm sure there are people in the audience right now who don't consider me reasonable, and there are people out there who I wouldn't consider reasonable," he said.

Zulfa said it would be difficult to draft language that was too specific because bullying takes many forms and can be nuanced. He likened it to trying to define obscenity, and paraphrased United States Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart's definition in a famous pornagraphy case. "You know it when you see it," he said.

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