Colleges and universities would be required to adopt anti-harassment policies and recognize cyberbullying as a threat to students under a new law Washington Sen. Patty Murray said she will introduce next week.
During a Thursday visit to Spokane, Murray said she will co-sponsor the Tyler Clementi Education Anti-Harassment Act, which would mandate universities or colleges that receive federal money to have policies defining bullying or harassment and prohibiting that behavior.
The bill is named after the Rutgers University freshman who in 2010 committed suicide after his roommate and another student used a webcam to film and distribute a private encounter Clementi had with a man in a dorm room.
Murray said she chose Spokane to announce the bill because she admires the work of the Inland Northwest Business Alliance, the regional group representing lesbian, gay, transgender and bisexual businesses as well as straight business owners who support their cause.
Her remarks were made at the alliance’s monthly meeting at the Lincoln Center.
The bill resembles a 2010 bill sponsored by the late Sen. Frank Lautenberg, D-N.J., and Rep. Rush Holt Jr., D-N.J. After Lautenberg died in 2013, the bill never received a vote in the full Senate or House.
The bill’s co-sponsor is Sen. Tammy Baldwin, D-Wis.
Murray also said she co-sponsored the bill after discussing it with Kristopher Sharp, one of her office staff. Sharp is gay and has been diagnosed with HIV.
Murray said Sharp told her how close he came to considering suicide last year, after enduring a painful encounter with homophobia while attending the University of Houston.
After living in foster homes and then finding himself homeless, Sharp enrolled at the university, gaining a tuition waiver because of his foster child status.
He decided last year to run for a student government office with another man. Before the election Sharp was called to a meeting with a school dean, who showed him fliers that had been spread across campus.
One side read: “Want AIDS?” and “Don’t Support the Isaac and Kris homosexual agenda.”
“On the back of the flier,” Murray said, “unbelievably was a copy of Kris’ official medical records displaying, in plain view, that he was HIV-positive.”
Murray said the dean told Sharp the university could do nothing, and that the fliers were protected by free speech.
After the election – which Sharp and his colleague won – he earned a degree in social work, then joined Murray’s office as an intern.
“So, after he talked to me about his own experience I decided to pursue this, because Kris made it personal,” Murray said.
Universities already can use existing laws that prohibit harassment against students or workers. Her bill, she said, will clarify the legal obligations schools will have when addressing harassment and make sure they explain their policies in clear language.
Eastern Washington University officials said the new law, if adopted, wouldn’t change already defined school policies against harassment and formal procedures for addressing it.
“Both (of those policies at EWU) have specific procedures for filing complaints and how to handle such cases,” said David Meany, an EWU spokesman.
“The biggest change would be having to include these new policies/statements in our annual security report,” Meany said in an email.
Murray said she understands many universities are up-to-speed on having policies addressing harassment.
The bill would address the gap that exists in other colleges, she added.
“Some schools and universities would be horrified to discover that they thought they’re covered, but they never thought about having a detailed policy” addressing bullying or harassment, she said.