AUGUSTA — A legislative committee endorsed an anti-bullying bill Tuesday that would set guidelines for schools statewide.

The widely supported proposal is held over from last year, when the Christian Civic League and other opponents said it could restrict free speech or be too costly for school districts.

Members of the Legislature’s Education and Cultural Affairs Committee said Tuesday that they have high hopes for a new version of the bill, which makes clear that students’ First Amendment rights are protected, among other changes.

“We’ve all come a long way, and today is going to be a good day for the kids,” said Rep. Terry Morrison, D-South Portland, the bill’s sponsor.

Morrison said yes and pumped his fist after the committee’s 12-0 vote.

Students from Biddeford High School were among those who watched the committee vote. The students are members of clubs and groups that fight sexual harassment and other bullying.

“It’s something that we see every day,” said Felicia Durant, a junior at Biddeford High.

The school already has many of the anti-bullying standards and training, but not all schools do, said Principal Britton Wolfe, who accompanied the students to the committee meeting.

“The real importance of this bill is ensuring consistency across the state” and raising awareness about the problem, he said.

The bill would define and prohibit bullying, and outline alternative discipline strategies for schools, prevention policies and training for teachers. It would bring Maine into line with 47 states that have similar anti-bullying laws, supporters of the bill say.

“It’s a punishable offense,” Morrison said. “If you do this, there will be consequences.”

Morrison said he introduced the bill after learning about students being bullied verbally and physically, sometimes to the point of committing suicide, for being gay or different in some other way.

The bill passed in the House last year but ran into opposition when critics said it represented a political agenda and could discourage differing viewpoints in schools.

Rep. Michael McLellan, R-Raymond, wanted the bill to address that concern and was pleased when language was added saying the law wouldn’t interfere with freedom of expression under the First Amendment.

“Expression of a thought is one thing. Being a bully is another, so this is a great statement,” said McLellan, a member of the education committee.

He praised the committee’s endorsement of the bill but told the students and others in the room that the problem can be solved only in homes and classrooms.

“The real change comes from families and from real people,” McLellan said. “It’s really your job to do this.”

L.D. 1237 would define bullying and cyberbullying, which involves the use of electronic communication such as cellphone texts and Facebook. It would prohibit bullying in schools and direct schools districts to create or update policies, disciplinary standards and training to protect students against bullying.

The bill will go to the full Legislature with the committee’s recommendation.

John Richardson — 620-7016

[email protected]

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