BATON ROUGE, La. – In the wake of three highly publicized “bully-cides” – each in a different region of the state – the Louisiana Legislature has passed a law requiring public schools to investigate and track each bullying complaint. The “Tesa Middlebrook Anti-Bullying Act”, which will take effect January 1, 2013, is named for the 17-year-old honor student who hanged herself at school on March 2, 2012.
Tesa Middlebrook was a talented artist, who had just received a full scholarship to Arizona State University. An active participant with the Arts Center in New Roads, Tesa had told directors there she was being harassed by other students because she wouldn’t “talk ghetto”. The Pointe Coupee Central High senior had lost her mother to cancer earlier in the school year, and while her grandmother had complained to the school about the alleged bullying, none of the school officials noticed that Tesa was not in classes that fateful Friday afternoon. She had hanged herself from the football bleachers during lunchtime. Her body was discovered after school was dismissed for the day.
Before Tesa, there was Hannah Pauley of Lake Charles. Her father, Len, says the night of October 25, 2011, will haunt him forever.
“I went out to eat with a friend of mine, and I got home about 9:30 to 9:45 that evening,” Pauley says. “I had gone into my room, and I noticed my drawer—where I kept my pistol—was open. And I walked upstairs. She was in her room, laying on the floor, with a self-inflicted gunshot wound.”
Pauley says his 16-year-old daughter had been raped by her stepbrother, and was being taunted—in person and on Facebook—about the assault. He says boys and girls were daily accusing her of having invited the attack.
Danielle Cox of Bossier City ended her life May 20, 2011. The 15-year-old student at Parkway High School was diabetic, and being regularly ridiculed about her weight. She reached out to one friend, who posted a message asking Danielle’s other friends to text her messages of encouragement. One boy sent her over 150 messages —encouraging her to kill herself. He is awaiting trial for alleged cyber-bullying and assisting with Danielle’s suicide.
State Senator Rick Ward, (D-Port Allen), is the author of the “Tesa Middlebrook Anti-Bullying Act. He says it was named for his former constituent because her story disturbed him greatly.
“I thought something needed to be done to address the problem, and make sure there was a process in place if somebody was facing bullying issues,” he says.
The law requires public schools to inform students, parents, faculty and staff that bullying is prohibited. School staff—including bus drivers—must go through a minimum of four hours annual training on bullying intervention. School principals must investigate reports of bullying the very next school day after a complaint comes in. If no action is taken, then complaints move up to the local school board, which must also start an investigation the following business day.
Senator Ward calls the time limit crucial, saying, “We wanted something immediate, that the situation can be addressed.”
In addition, Ward says the act provides an “escape hatch” for the victim, if the problem persists. The act requires school districts to help move a bullying victim to another school.
Louisiana’s lawmakers considered–and rejected—seven other anti-bullying measures during the legislative session that concluded June 4. One of those bills, by Representative Pat Smith (D-Baton Rouge) enumerated the possible motivations behind prohibited harassment, including race, ancestry, disabilities, religion, and sexual orientation. Protests from the conservative Christian organization Louisiana Family Forum, were a catalyst for getting that language stripped from the bill, and Representative Smith withdrew the measure from any further consideration.
Another bill, promoted by the Louisiana Family Forum, would have made certain levels of bullying a crime–complete with fines and jail time. That measure repeatedly exempted “religious free speech” from any school restrictions. Governor Bobby Jindal’s administration objected to the bill, because it protected “all persons under the age of eighteen”, no matter what type of school they attend—public, private, or charter.
The governor backed Senator Ward’s measure, however. In fact, Jindal’s education policy advisor, Stafford Palmieri, assisted Ward in drafting the legislation. But the new law that bears her name would not have helped Tesa Middlebrook. The act specifically exempts charter schools and Pointe Coupee Central High—where Tesa took her own life—is a charter school.
Senator Ward says, “We may have to revisit that next year, but this is a start at tackling the problem.” He adds, “It was something that we knew we COULD pass.”
The families of the girls aren’t commenting on the new law. Instead, Tesa’s grandmother and aunt are suing the high school and its parent charter organization—Advance Baton Rouge. Danielle Cox’s parents have filed a federal wrongful death lawsuit against the Bossier Parish School District. Len Pauley has decided to go a different route. He’s been speaking at high schools, telling Hannah’s story.
Pauley says he reminds everyone at those assemblies what actually motivates bullies.
“They want to see the hurt, because they are truly the ones that are hurting—and they’re trying to inflict their pain on someone else,” he explains.
He also has a message for the bullies themselves.
“You don’t know what’s going on in somebody’s life, so who are you to possibly be the one to push them over the edge?” Instead, Pauley asks, “Why don’t you be that person who can make the difference in someone’s life?”