State Representative Carlos Guillermo Smith of Orlando argues a new anti-bullying scholarship fails to protect LGBTQ victims.
The Florida Hope Scholarship is a voucher program that gives parents the option to transfer their children to alternative private schools if they have been a victim of bullying. Funding for the program comes from purchasers of motor vehicles who chose to contribute their vehicle sales tax to the anti-bullying scholarship. The program is available for students starting the 2018-2019 school year.
Earlier this month, Huffington Post reporter Rebecca Klein investigated the scholarship and found that 10 percent of private schools signed up for the Florida Hope Scholarship have a zero tolerance policy towards LGBTQ students.
Since the law's beginnings, Smith has been one of the scholarship’s biggest critics. He says the law “looks great on paper,” but has many faults when it comes to LGBTQ victims of bullying. He joined Sundial to talk about how the Hope Scholarship legislation could be updated and how to hold schools accountable in their anti-bullying policies.
WLRN: What were some of your immediate concerns about the legislation [and] with how it was proposed?
Rep. Smith: For those who really understand the challenges that LGBTQ youth face, we understand LGBTQ students are more likely to be bullied and are subject to institutional bullying, which in this case can happen at the private schools that receive the scholarship. Also, sometimes their own parents are not the best advocates, and what I mean by that is that so many students who are LGBTQ are scared to talk to their own parents about why they were bullied. This all out of fear of rejection, fear that their parents perhaps will respond by yanking them out of the school and throwing them into a faith based private school where they will maybe be subject to conversion therapy to change who they are. So you know this law is riddled with problems and it offers absolutely no scientific evidence or data that shows these students will be better off in a private school than they are in a public school.
What are the policies that public schools are required to follow when dealing with the issue of bullying?
In 2008, the Florida legislature passed the Jeffrey Johnston Stand Up for All Students Act. What that said was each of the 67 school districts would be required to create their own anti-bullying policy. Now, I think that that particular law needs to be improved. It needs to be enhanced. We need to fund our school counselors better so that they're actually focusing on this type of intervention when it comes to bullying. The answer to school bullying is not 'Let's just take the bullied student out of a public school and put them into a private school.' The Jeffrey Johnston Stand Up For All Students anti-bullying law does not apply to private schools. There are no private school standards for bullied students.
Where would students go if they fell they in physical danger? What are the protections?
Exactly. I asked the sponsor [of the bill]. I asked Representative Manny Diaz on the House floor, "What are the protections that exist in a private school that receive this voucher that would protect a child from being bullied in that private school institution?" The answer I was given was that the criminal statutes that protect any human being from assault and battery are the protections that are available to that student in a private school.