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Not a session for social justice

By Staff
The 2008 session of the North Carolina General Assembly has come to a close, and it’s time for us to assess the performance of state lawmakers. Unfortunately, even a brief look reveals that this was not a session that did much to advance the cause of social justice.
Most notable among the session’s many shortcomings in this department were the last-minute failure in the state Senate of two very important bills, House Bill 1366, “The School Violence Prevention Act,” and House Bill 1291, the “N.C. Racial Justice Act.” Both measures were simple and small steps that North Carolina could have taken to ensure equality for all people in this state.
Commonly referred to as the “bullying bill,” a more-accurate name for the School Violence Prevention Act would be the “anti-bullying bill. “The bill set out a common definition of bullying and harassing acts that every local education administrative unit would have had to adopt if the bill had passed. There was also a minimum procedure which each school would have been required to follow in order to deal with bullying by students and teachers. The bill was intended to make sure that what is “bullying” in one school is “bullying” in every school in North Carolina and to set certain minimum guidelines for schools so that all children are protected.
Somehow, this small fact was ignored by the bill’s opponents because as part of the definition section of the bill, HB 1366 listed groups of students with identifying characteristics. The listed categories were “race, color, religion, ancestry, national origin, gender, gender identity or expression, physical appearance, sexual orientation, or mental, physical, or sensory disability.” These categories were spelled out because research has demonstrated these groups of students may be most at risk of being bullied because of these differentiating characteristics and because these students are most vulnerable to the effects of bullying. These categories are listed so that school administrators are aware of the risk to these students. The bill does not create any special rights or raise any group of students above any other group of student.
And make no mistake, the need for reform exists. Surveys show that 43 percent of North Carolina’s students agree that bullying is a problem in their schools and 7 percent of students have missed one day out of 30 because they felt they would be unsafe in school. Moreover, a statewide poll during the session’s waning days showed that 72 percent of North Carolinians support legislation “to protect children from bullying based on their sexual orientation.”
Unfortunately, it seems that opponents would rather not give schools all of the information and tools necessary to protect all children. Hence their claim that the inclusion of the terms “sexual orientation” and “gender identity” were a part of some hidden plot to promote a “homosexual agenda” on the schools. Even thought this claim was demonstrably absurd, lawmakers in the state Senate failed to muster the courage to pass the bill.
HB 1291, the N.C. Racial Justice Act, enjoyed bipartisan support in the House. The bill would have allowed a criminal defendant to challenge his or her sentence of death (but not the underlying conviction itself) if he or she could prove that race played a role in the sentence. Under the bill, a defendant could use any relevant evidence, including statistics, to prove race was a significant factor in decisions to seek the sentence of death or impose it.
The fact that race plays a role in the criminal justice system is undeniable, but we should demand that the ultimate penalty be applied in as color-blind of a way as possible. While this bill also became embroiled in controversy, the issue it sought to address was really quite simple; race should not play a role in who is sentenced to death, but studies show that it does. Unfortunately, as with the anti-bullying bill, the state Senate failed to take the measure up.
As the dust settles and everyone returns to campaigning or other work, it is worthwhile to remember what these two bills were really about. One bill would have protected children, and the other would have protected the integrity of our criminal justice system (and may very well have prevented an innocent person from being executed). To pass these measures would have been to take a stand for social justice — something we should all be in favor of. Let’s hope this was not our best chance to enact these important bills into law.