In both houses of the Florida Legislature, lawmakers have proposed bills that they say reach out to targets of bullying and promise hope. Hope that, according to those lawmakers, takes the shape of an escape route and, elsewhere, a new beginning.
Unfortunately, the bills fail to address the root causes of bullying, send a dangerous mixed message, and do little to ensure that vulnerable students end up in safer, structured spaces.
Senate Bill 1172—approved by the Senate Education Committee on January 22—and its companion, House Bill 1, have as their endgame a program called the “Hope Scholarship” through which victims of bullying in K–12 public schools could receive some money to attend private schools. The bills’ sponsors propose funding the voucher by asking Florida motorists to donate $20 when registering or buying vehicles in exchange for a tax credit for the same amount. In effect, the bill would transfer millions from the general public fund to vouchers to pay private school tuitions.
The program’s sponsors are framing their proposal as empowering to victims, a gift of agency, an escape route for students for whom, as HB 1 sponsor Byron Daniels puts it, “each school day brings anguish and fear.” To lift up that message, they have brought forward parents, including one who saw her daughter rebound and flourish after moving away from a school where she experienced harassment, saying, “[B]ullying victims shouldn’t have to wait while schools figure it out.”
That parent is right. To those experiencing bullying on a daily basis, time is precious. Too many children get lost in processes or negligence, and schools must do better by them. But these bills are not the way. While the “Hope Scholarship” aims to help individual students in the short term, its long-term consequences—both for those very students and for their peers across the state—could be severe. HB 1 and SB 1172 do nothing to address the root problem of bullying. And in many cases, they could actually exacerbate it.
Because the bills threaten to diminish public schools’ legal responsibility to address bullying behavior, they do nothing to ensure a safer school climate. Florida law already dictates that schools have policies and procedures in place to deal with bullying, keep families informed and offer referrals to victims who need help. The “Hope Scholarship” would undercut this responsibility in the interest of expanding a voucher system that will hurt public schools and destabilize their efforts to stymie bullying.
As a recent editorial from the Tampa Bay Times pointed out, “The Jeffrey Johnston Stand Up for All Students Act, passed unanimously in 2008 in response to the suicide of a teen who had been bullied for years, even ties school districts’ funding to compliance. … Simply enforcing existing law or strengthening it would forthrightly deal with bullying.”
But these bills don’t just hurt potential future victims of bullying; they also fail to help the very students they’re designed to help. Instead of being protected in the schools they already attend, students who receive the “Hope Scholarship” and change schools may forfeit those required protections altogether. For the most part, state and federal laws that protect children in public school do not apply to private or religious schools, and the legislation as written does nothing to require those schools to protect or offer services to transferring students. Success stories would happen, sure. Some students will thrive in their new environment. But others may be left to be victimized yet again, no longer eligible for transfer and no longer in a school legally bound to help them.
These problems all assume that the program works as designed. But there are clear, practical problems with the bill as well. It puts the onus on principals to investigate and decide whether a student’s situation would improve if they were transferred—an obvious conflict of interest and a no-win situation. Granting a student’s request for transfer could result in administrators abdicating their legal responsibility to provide a safe climate. Denying it could reinforce a bullied student’s lack of agency. School leaders, of course, have legal obligations to investigate and respond to bullying and harassment in a thorough and timely manner. But this bill throws a curveball at those leaders, forcing them to evaluate whether the alleged victim should be pushed out of their school.
Finally, and significantly, this legislation also sends the wrong message to children—both victims and perpetrators of bullying behavior. Rather than providing more incentive and expectations for schools to provide an inclusive, safe climate, the “Hope Scholarship” tells students who bully others that they have the power to push their peers out of the school entirely while they themselves remain. It risks telling victims what they already hear from their perpetrators: that they do not belong and that they are alone in advocating for their own safety.
We would implore Florida lawmakers and school leaders to abandon these ill-considered attempts at “quick fixes.” Instead, they should double down on the promise already written into existing law—and make it stronger.
Despite story after story of students who feel helpless in the face of bullying, too many schools still use outdated anti-bullying methods or dismiss the problem altogether as “kids being kids.” Too many are silent bystanders to the suffering of marginalized students.
The answer doesn’t lie in offering an escape route to an uncertain destination. It lies in building safe, welcoming and inclusive public schools and steadfastly encoding that mission into policy and law.
Require support systems in schools. Strengthen harassment policies. Fund public schools so they can afford the personnel and materials required to provide services and protection to children who suffer harassment and who feel victimized and alone. Mandate training for educators so they know how to address bullying in a world where it exists in the halls, online and off school grounds. Use the funds that might go to private schools and instead invest in programs that combat bullying and offer all children a place to go, to be heard, to feel empowered.
The “Hope Scholarship”—even viewed through the lens of good intentions—will not have the funding or scope to help every target of bullying in Florida. And even if this is just an option, just a supplement to anti-bullying policies, a program that takes public funds and places them in private schools is not a step in the right direction.
The destination, instead, should be a world in which lawmakers and legislators send a clear message to victims of bullying:
You belong where you are, and it’s our job to make sure you feel safe.
Collins is the senior writer for Teaching Tolerance.