Jim Neal

Kids in NC Get Thrown Under the Bus

Filed By Jim Neal | July 21, 2008 4:00 PM | comments

Filed in: Living, Politics
Tags: anti-bullying, anti-gay, child abuse, Jim Neal, Kay Hagan, nc senate, North Carolina, protecting children

As has been reported the NC Senate's failure to pass anti-bullying legislation in tact despite having the votes is disappointing shows a disturbing and unacceptable lack of courage and compassion. They threw kids in the state of North Carolina under the bus when they had an opportunity to protect them.

I have communicated privately with many members of the NC House and the NC Senate regarding passage of the anti-bullying legislation. In doing so, I made clear to them that mine was a private correspondence written as a parent, not as a politician and not as someone who planned to publicize our discourse so at to subject them to outside pressures. I did so in order to give them an opportunity to round the votes required for passage of bill without feeling as if I were trying to shame or embarrass them publicly. And I did have continued private conversations with members of both houses, Democratic and Republican.

Now that the bill has failed to pass, I'm am not going to break my word to kiss and tell about those conversations. However, am going to comment on the failure to pass this legislation and go on record publicly with my thoughts. First, here is an excerpt of a personal story which I related to them.

I would like to share with you a personal experience which I hope you will take into account during your deliberations. I hope no other family has to experience the same sort of situation my family did.

My two sons, at the ages of nine and eleven, were teased and harassed-- beaten in a few instances-- when they were attending public school in California. As some of you may know, I raised my boys as a single parent. I taught Jamie and Winston a simple lesson: if you are threatened, always speak to your teacher, guidance counselor or principal and don't take actions into your own hands (a departure from my Dad's admonition to me over 40 years ago that I should bust a bully between the eyes.)

Unbeknownst to me, one of my boys' teachers was letting him out of school a few minutes early each day so that he could get a running start home from several kids who were bullying him. Neither he nor his younger brother told me about this situation, in part because of an incident months earlier in which my elder son had been teased and reported same to his guidance counselor. Nothing happened. The teasing continued. He didn't think that reporting the harassment would make a difference. Experience gave him no reason to believe otherwise.

A few months later, I received a call from a neighbor alerting me that my sons had been suspended from school, arrested and were being held at a juvenile detention facility. Their offense? My older son, all of 11 years old, had brought an unloaded pellet gun to school which he had borrowed from a schoolmate days earlier. He never brandished it, and it was no longer in his locker that day when another student had told their teacher about Jamie having brought the pellet gun to school. I was out-of-town on a business trip at the time. I rushed to the airport while trying to arrange bail for my kids with the assistance of my close friends on the ground.

By the time I had landed early that evening, it was clear that we were not going to be able to rouse a judge to release them on bail. When I was able to visit them that evening, I will never forget the look on my sons' faces as they stared at me in bewilderment from behind a wall of Plexiglas, clad in baggy orange jumpsuits. They were detained overnight, and because of their ages, thank God, were segregated from the rest of the population.

Why had my eleven year-old brought a weapon to school? "To scare them away, Dad, so they'd leave me alone" he said. He recounted the whole story about what was happening to him on a daily basis at school.

I was livid: my kids weren't being protected by a system responsible for their safety to the point of feeling the need to do just the opposite of what they had been taught. Jamie and Winston had been targeted because their dad was gay. That's all. It was about their association with someone else- me-- not them. The judge who heard the case agreed some months later, lecturing the attorneys for the school district for their handling of the situation. Lawyers suggested that I file suit against the district but I had no interest in having my sons go through that ordeal just to make a point. The damage had been done. We moved on. My kids deserved better.

The school system wisely forbade the possession on school premises of any type of weapons, even seemingly harmless ones. Administrators, teachers, parents and kids were all aware and supportive of a law that made schools safer. At the same time, school administrators and faculty were insensitive to the abject bullying which endangered my sons. Their blind spot sent a loathsome signal to my kids, their classmates and the school community about the failure of those in a position of authority to respect and protect the safety of every young boy and girl. Every kid attending public school in our state deserves to be and feel safe in school. The bill before you, if anything else, will raise the bar of sensitivity of teachers and administrators in regard to exactly which sorts of situations might undermine the safety and well-being of every child.

Simply saying that we don't need any "protected classes" misses the point. I know the language in regard to sexual orientation in this bill has become the bone of contention, but that too misses the point. So-called protected classes have evolved over all of our lifetimes in response to the times; I remember someone calling a black classmate of mine a "monkey" when I was in elementary school in Greensboro. Our teacher said "shhh" when some kids laughed. That would be unthinkable today.

The goal of this bill is to broaden awareness and strengthen safety. This legislation shouldn't be framed by some partisan debate over social, moral or religious beliefs. A kid who's teased for any reason needs an adult to intervene. For hook or for crook, kids are teased in our schools all the time in regard to gender, sexual orientation, gender identity and the like. Ask a teacher, or a student, and you'll get confirmation.

In closing, I hope that this story will shed a little light on the legislation before you. I'm optimistic that you will vote from the heart for what is best for our kids. Like so many issues before our state and our nation, this is not Democratic or Republican legislation. It is about keeping our kids safe-- all of them. We are a moral and just people here in North Carolina. The last thing you, your colleagues or any parent would want to happen after you adjourn this session is to have a child injured or killed as a consequence of inaction on the part of this august body.

The members of the North Carolina Senate who chose not to show up for work last Thursday to vote for protecting school children in our state are:

  • Sen. Janet Cowell (D/Wake County and candidate for North Carolina State Treasurer 2008).*
  • Sen. Charles Dannelly (D/Mecklenburg County and recently-appointed co-chair of the powerful Senate Appropriations Committee)
  • Sen. Malcolm Graham (D/Mecklenburg County)
  • Sen. Kay Hagan (D/Guilford County and candidate for the United States Senate 2008)**
  • Sen. Clark Jenkins (D/Edgemcombe, Martin and Pitt Counties)*
  • Sen. Larry Shaw (D/Cumberland County)
  • Sen. Jerry W. Tillman (R/Montgomery and Randolph Counties)*

The kids they threw under the bus couldn't vote on Thursday, nor could their families. Every one of the aforementioned senators had voted last year for a (weaker) version of this legislation. And every one of the aforementioned members of the North Carolina Senate works for the citizens of our state. We pay their salaries and their benefits. We hired them to represent us and our children. They failed us. They failed those who don't have a voice and needed their voices to vote Aye.

I have one voice and I'm using it right now. I hope more of you-- wherever you may live-- will do likewise.

Last week, just after having had surgery to remove a brain tumor and against the advice of his doctors, US Senator Ted Kennedy hobbled into the well of the US Senate to cast a crucial Aye vote for Medicare health care legislation. He used his voice to represent America. God knows he had ample reason to be absent. But he showed up for work anyway.

That's leadership. That's support, not lip service, when the rubber hits the road. That's courage. And, that's one helluva public servant.

* Sens. Cowell, Jenkins and Tillman were present in the morning but were not present to vote on certain legislation later in the day.

** Sen. Hagan defeated me and three other candidates in the May 2008 Democratic primary.

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Jim Neal mentions the "loathsome message" sent to kids who don't get protected from bullies at schools.

The Democrats who failed to vote for this NC bill send an equally loathsome message: that a growing number of so-called Democrats in public office don't have the guts to stand up for human rights any more.

I've been a Democrat all my life, going back to fist fights on the playground at age 8, on behalf of Eleanor Roosevelt and her stands on human rights of mine workers and other issues. This was during FDR's last Presidential campaign in 1944. I didn't have to be an 8-year-old rocket scientist to figure out what human rights were about.

Today, more and more, at age 72, I am distressed and embarrassed and disgusted at the so-called Democratic Party's growing list of failures to stand up for the daily life-and-death principles of democracy, which include human rights for persecuted minorities, whoever they are.

Is Obama going to turn things around for the Democrats? He HAS to...or we will be left with a one-party system where everybody in office reacts and votes like a Republican.

Patricia there needs to be a discussion, and there is so in the blogosphere and elsewhere in more muted terms, about the reform movement and/or progressive side of the Democratic Party.

It is going to take a lot of pushing to turn the ship around. I think the heart of the problem is that the Party seeks to perpetuate its own existence by adhering to conventional, and worn, wisdom.

We had a magnificent governor here in NC in 1960 (and later US Senator, Duke University president and presidential candidate) named Terry Sanford. Sanford was as progressive as they get. He had a great line, which I'm going to quote very loosely "....you don't develop as many enthusiastic friends by taking that cautions, middle-of-the-road thing and it didn't suit me. I've always been a 51% man and thought if we could move as far as we could and still carry 51% that was the responsibility of leadership..."


Indiana doesn't have any bullying legislation either. Florida recently passed legislation that didn't include any specific categorizations. Weekend Editor Waymon Hudson got several angry phone calls from LGBT activists trying to paint the law as a victory for the community after he blogged how the lack of categories meant that queer kids still weren't safe.

Laura Ellen Pisoni | July 22, 2008 12:31 PM

Yes, yes, yes. I've been at the legislature every day of this session doing monitoring for an environmental group. I was, frankly, shocked that the bill got killed because people chose to be absent. I was particularly saddened by the absence of Janet Cowell and Kay Hagan. I understand that they're both running for higher office - but I do wish that they would see a vote for children's safety as a helpful one in the coming election cycle, not as a hindrance.

I was, however, touched by the comments of Sen. Albertson. While reading one's own poem on the Senate floor is a little hokey, it was a powerful statement about tolerance. "So let us keep working until the day comes when we all live together as a family of one."

Jim, thanks for sharing your story. It makes me so angry that our leaders can't stand up for kids. And I think Patricia makes such an important point. I think that the Democratic Party is beyond saving and it's time that progressives moved on.

Will people just realize that bullying leads to fighting back? As if we need any reason to stop it other than "it hurts the bullied," but apparently we do.