Opinion and Taking Issue

KENNEDY: Legislature has own band of bullies

March 24, 2012

Sheila Suess KennedyA spate of recent headlines reminds us that a third of all gay kids attempt suicide—and many succeed.

In the session just past, the General Assembly once again refused to pass “safe schools” anti-bullying legislation. Lawmakers expressed concern that rules against inflicting physical and verbal abuse would infringe the “free speech rights” of anti-gay students.

If you are a gay teen in Indianapolis, and you are coming to terms with your sexuality in an environment that not only doesn’t protect you, but does protect the bullies who make your life miserable, where do you turn? Most of us remember how hard it was just being a teenager, let alone a teenager facing constant mocking, marginalization and other evidence of social disapproval.

For 25 years, the Indiana Youth Group has provided a “safe place” for such youngsters—an environment in which they can get counseling, make friends and feel valued. The 15-year-old girl cutting herself because the physical pain makes the psychic pain easier to bear; the 13-year-old boy raiding the family’s liquor cabinet in an effort to blot out classmates’ taunts—as well as less-damaged children who simply want to know they aren’t alone—have found their way to IYG.

Indiana’s legislators couldn’t find it in their hearts to pass a law that would protect vulnerable children against bullying in our schools. They couldn’t find time in their busy legislative schedules to address several important issues facing the state. But at least 20 of them found the time to do a little bullying of their own.

They first tried to pass a law preventing IYG from participating in the state’s specialty license plate program. That failed, due largely to a grass-roots outcry joined by news media around the state. But they weren’t willing to let the matter die. They directed the Department of Motor Vehicles to find that IYG and two other organizations had “breached their contracts” by giving a small number of plates to donors—a practice that was fairly widespread, and a “breach” that legislators and the BMV had previously ignored.

When you are a state agency, and you get a letter signed by 20 of the people who control your funding, you listen. So IYG’s participation in the specialty plate program has been suspended, and the bullies in the General Assembly have achieved by stealth what they couldn’t manage in the light of day.

It’s worth considering what it is that they have achieved.

They’ve kept license plates with the legend “IYG” off the road. In their fevered imaginations, such plates would have signaled “acceptance” of the existence and equal civil status of gay people, and thus hastened the decline of Western Civilization As We’ve Known It.

They’ve cost IYG fundraising dollars budgeted to support a staff position. Fewer children will be served. Why?

Studies suggest that bullies have a distinctive mental makeup—what psychiatrists call a “hostile attributional bias,” a kind of paranoia characterized by attributing hostile intentions to others. The trouble is, bullies perceive provocation where it does not exist. Think, in this context, of homophobic rhetoric warning of the nefarious “gay agenda,” or accusations that groups like IYG are “targeting” children—presumably to “turn them gay.” Those imaginary provocations are used to justify aggressive behavior.

Bullies pick on people because they process social information inaccurately. Unfortunately, real people get hurt.

One thing we’ve learned from this mean-spirited and unseemly display is why anti-bullying legislation didn’t pass. It’s because we’ve elected at least 20 bullies to the General Assembly.•

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Kennedy is a professor of law and public policy at the School of Public and Environmental Affairs at IUPUI. Her column appears monthly. She blogs regularly at www.sheilakennedy.net. She can be reached at skennedy@ibj.com. Send comments on this column to ibjedit@ibj.com.

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