Possible Solution for Bullying Victims Sees Political Roadblocks

Rep. Byron Donalds on the House floor in April 2017. (Public domain photo from the Florida House of Representatives.)

Naples Republican Rep. Byron Donalds introduced The Hope Scholarship program in early November, to expand Florida’s voucher system to students who have been bullied in public school programs.

The scholarship is slated to be paid for by taxpayers who make a tax-credit applicable contribution up to $20 when they purchase or register a motor vehicle.

HB1 would allow students to receive a scholarship to attend a private school or transportation to the public school of their choice 15 days after they report an incident.

Acts of bullying, battery, harassment, hazing, kidnapping, physical attack, robbery, sexual offense, harassment, assault, threat, intimidation or fighting would all be included in the legislation.

“This bill is not about bullies, this bill is about victims…what I’m doing is providing a pathway for parents to do what’s in the best interest of their children,” said Donalds.

The bill states that these scholarships will be given on a ‘first-come-first-served basis’ and Rep. Larry Lee Jr., D-Fort Pierce, said this aspect of the bill would leave many students behind.

“I want to deal with this,” Lee said. “But I don’t want to deal with it for a few people.”

Proponents of the bill, such as Rep. David Santiago, R-Deltona, stand in contrast with Lee’s view, and believe that this bill has the capability to protect students wherever they go.

The bill’s nine to five majority in a House education subcommittee advanced the legislation, but state leaders such as Rep. Patricia Williams, D-Lauderdale Lakes, remain skeptical.

“We’re taking taxpayers’ money to pay a private school. I can’t support that,” said Williams in a statement following her vote against the proposed legislation.

The bill does not limit the funding for sectarian or nonsectarian private schools.

According to an Orlando Sentinel investigation, Private schools in Florida are largely unregulated; however, the bill specifies that private schools receiving funds must send monetary reports to the government, as well as academic updates to the parents of these students.

Additional state representatives such as Rep. Sam Killebrew, R-Winter Haven, oppose the bill due to fundamental flaws in its execution.

“My basic concern is that we’re removing students rather than removing the perpetrator or bully,” said Killebrew.

Rep. Robert Asencio, D-Miami, claimed the bill doesn’t address the issue of bullying.

Donalds maintains that the goal of the legislation is purely for the sake of helping children left unprotected by the school system, “we’re just trying to provide them a pathway to get out, to get to another building, another environment, so they can better themselves,” he said.

According to TBO, “47,000 students could have taken advantage of the scholarship last year, with another estimated 67,000 students who did not report violence or bullying against them.”

House Speaker Richard Corcoran stands behind the bill because he feels it would provide many students with a better learning environment.

“When you put a kid in a good, safe learning environment, good results happen,” said Corcoran.

The House bill, which currently does not have a Senate companion, will be subject to open debate when the legislature convenes on January 9.

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