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Public opinion mixed on anti-bullying bill

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BILL 18 is driven more by a political agenda to appease a small minority than a way to protect young people from bullies, a legislative committee heard Wednesday night.

It's also so poorly written it allows bullies to target the very people it's intended to protect.

These comments and more were made on the second night of public hearings on the NDP's anti-bullying bill that would require publicly funded schools to accommodate gay-straight alliances or clubs for LGBT students.

"I believe the bill has created more division than it ever hoped to bring together," presenter Ken Haslam said.

Haslam and others said the definition of bullying in Bill 18 is too broad and gives too much power to a small group of students over school administrators, particularly teachers and staff of faith-based schools, in demanding the creation of a gay-straight alliance (GSA).

Presenter Keith Neufeld said Bill 18 is also a double-edged sword as once a GSA is created, it "places children under a banner" and tells bullies who is gay in their school.

David Driedger, board chairman of Steinbach Christian High School, told the all-party committee the bill as written doesn't differentiate between persistent, deliberate bullying and what could be seen as a one-time act or an error in judgment.

"Who will be the one to determine what a child should have known?" he said.

However, high school guidance counsellors Tara Didychuk and LeAnn Froese told the committee Bill 18 is a recognition all students have the right to be safe in school.

"Ultimately, Bill 18 is telling students 'We care,' " Froese said.

Didychuk said students at her school outside of the city -- she declined to say which one -- formed a GSA two years ago with 25 students signing up right away. The group renamed the alliance FREE -- Friends Recognizing Everyone Equally.

"We're just people together," Didychuk said. "Kids are human -- they need to feel safe. If they feel alone and desperate, I don't want them to choose death over life."

Other presenters said Bill 18 is a threat to religious freedom that could result in a court challenge as the requirement for GSAs may conflict with religious beliefs.

"You're passing legislation in an area that's highly dynamic," Wayne Patram said. "I believe the bill can create the foundation. I don't believe it can create the house."

Al Hiebert said Bill 18 as proposed could threaten the province's education system and economy, and GSA's impose an alien-liberal theology of sex on conservative faith-based schools.

"Seven billion of us are here on the planet thanks to our mothers and fathers," he told the committee.

Froese also said Bill 18 reflects the reality students are being sexualized earlier in life due to exposure to the media and are dealing with questions about their own sexuality sooner in life.

She said Bill 18 is not a threat to religious freedom, but an opportunity for faith-based schools to value all students in a modern age.

The public hearing continues to Sept. 11 and through to Sept. 14, if needed.

bruce.owen@freepress.mb.ca

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition September 5, 2013 A4

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