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Editorial: Protect every child

The N.C. General Assembly gave final approval last week to a measure that expands the state’s anti-bullying policy in public schools.
In most cases, such action would be a no-brainer and would generate little criticism, if any.
But this legislation ó which Gov. Beverly Perdue’s office said she will sign into law ó drew plenty of opposition, both inside the legislature and across the state. Nearly half of North Carolina’s House and Senate members voted against the bill and the state’s two Roman Catholic bishops spoke out against it.
Why the dissension? Two words: “sexual orientation.”
As loaded as that phrase has become in the realm where politics, religion and civil rights overlap, a look at the legislation reveals that any blanket condemnation of it is misplaced at best.
The law would require the state’s 115 school systems to adopt a policy against bullying and harassing behavior that includes a definition of such behavior as outlined in the bill. Part of that definition says bullying can be identified as acts by one person against another “motivated by any actual or perceived differentiating characteristic …”
The legislation goes on to list more than a dozen examples of those “differentiating characteristics,” including race, color, religion, ancestry, gender, physical appearance and, yes, sexual orientation.
Part of the argument against the bill was that by including sexual orientation, the state would be singling gay and lesbian students out for special protections. Some religious leaders feared it would move North Carolina a step closer to legalizing same-sex marriage.
But the legislation itself says it creates no new “protected class,” and it includes language to protect students who are truly exercising their right to free speech, even when what they say is unpopular and makes others uncomfortable, as opposed to those who use speech as a blunt object to hurt others. It will also make anti-bullying policies uniform across the state. But what many local parents know is that this law won’t change much in Rowan County, because much of it is nothing new.
The Rowan-Salisbury School System already went beyond the general policy adopted by the N.C. State Board of Education in 2004 and has included in its student code of conduct a policy that does expressly prohibit bullying, harassment and discrimination based on a number of characteristics, including sexual orientation.
The truth is, some groups are more susceptible to bullying and harassment than others. That doesn’t make any child more important than any other or more deserving of protection, and supporters of the legislation have said it will simply ensure all students are protected, even by teachers and administrators who may not agree with their lifestyles.
Any responsible adult ó especially one who works with kids every day ó doesn’t need a list to know which ones might need the most looking out for and doesn’t need to be told that all children deserve to learn in an environment free of bullying and harassment. But any adult in that position who might not otherwise protect a child because of his or her own prejudice should have that responsibility spelled out and enforced.

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