Telling Congress to End School Bullying

August 23, 2011

An essay by Manpreet Kaur, Sikh Coalition Volunteer Advocate

Securing a meeting with a congressional office to talk about the Safe Schools Improvement Act is something an average citizen might see as a difficult task.  I definitely thought so, until I actually did it.  One day after requesting a meeting, I received appointments for July 11, 2011 from the offices of Congressman Peter Roskam (IL) and Senator Claire McCaskill (MO).  I was set to go to Washington DC and walk the halls of Congress!  Many questions filled my mind: How should I present the bill?  Can I do this by myself?  And most importantly — why does this elected official’s office care to meet me?

After talking to Rajdeep Singh and Amardeep Singh from the Sikh Coalition, my questions started getting answered.  I solidified my talking points for the legislation that I would be bringing forward to both offices.  Rajdeep helped me join hands with two other organizations that support the bill: GLSEN and the Interfaith Alliance.  Amardeep instilled in me the focus of how I, as a constituent, have the duty and power to present the problems of the elected official’s constituency and provide corrective measures.  With the focus of the bill correctly in my head, two powerful organizations confirming attendance to join me, and me knowing why I should be presenting this bill, I was ready to conquer these meetings.

The Safe Schools Improvement Act is a proposed federal anti-bullying law.  If enacted, it will require schools and school districts to collect and publicize data about incidents of bullying and harassment.  This will create incentives for school officials to protect students and allow government agencies to quickly identify schools and school districts where problems exist.

As I arrived at Congressman Roskam’s office, I kept on thinking how important this meeting was and how much I wanted the Congressman to support this bill.  My talking points were repeating in my head of how much bullying has increased and why the data-gathering requirement laid out in the bill is necessary.  That itself withered away my nervousness as I felt the need to speak about this problem to my Congressman’s office.  Accompanying me to the meeting were Rebecca Weidler, the public policy intern from GLSEN; Arielle Gingold, the deputy director of public policy at the Interfaith Alliance; and Rajdeep Singh.  After I outlined the problems of bullying in Illinois and the bill proposal to  Congressman Roskam’s legislative assistant, Rebecca  provided statistics, and Rajdeep and Arielle explained the  data collection requirements that schools would need to implement under the law.  Within 20 minutes, the meeting was done, and the  legislative assistant explained that he would present the bill to Congressman Roskam for consideration.

Later in the  afternoon, I met  with Senator Claire McCaskill’s office.  Having had  practice with the earlier meeting, I felt less nervous and more energized to say what I wanted to say.  Arielle accompanied me to this meeting along with another policy intern from GLSEN, Noel.  The meeting went as smoothly as the one in the morning.  I started by outlining the need for the bill; Noel summarized the disheartening statistics of bullying in Missouri; and Arielle wrapped up by discussing the specifications of the bill.

My Capitol Hill experience was beyond what I expected.  I never thought being able to walk up to my Congressional offices and talking to Congressional staff  about an important issue would be this easy.  Building a strong alliance for the meeting was extremely necessary, as it helped convey the bill through different viewpoints for the same cause.  As nervous as I was, it was equally rewarding to know I utilized my resources and did my duty as a constituent to engage with my elected officials.

It remains to be seen whether Congressman Roskam and Senator McCaskill will co-sponsor the Safe Schools Improvement Act.  They need to hear from more constituents.  In the meantime, you can ask your elected representatives to support this important legislation by clicking here to sign a petition telling Congress to end school bullying.


See a Sikh, Call the Cops?

August 4, 2011

Imagine that you are an amateur photographer, taking pictures of landmarks in your city.  You are wearing a turban in accordance with your Sikh beliefs and minding your own business.  A passerby notices you from a distance, calls the police, and tells them that a man of Middle Eastern appearance is taking pictures of the area.  Suddenly, you are surrounded by three police officers, who begin to interrogate you.  After several minutes, it becomes clear that you’ve done nothing wrong, but the experience is unsettling nonetheless, because you’ve just been racially profiled.

Should you be able to do anything about it?

Not according to most members of the Judiciary Committee in the U.S. House of Representatives.  On July 20, 2011, a majority of the Committee approved a proposed federal law titled H.R. 963, The See Something, Say Something Act of 2011.  Although the legislation is designed to encourage individuals to communicate freely with law enforcement officials without worrying about frivolous lawsuits—and although this is uncontroversial—there is nothing in the legislation to discourage private individuals and police officers from engaging in racial profiling.

This important point was made during the Committee’s July 20 meeting by California Congresswoman Judy Chu, who offered an amendment that would have addressed profiling concerns, and who condemned racial and religious profiling against Sikhs and other minorities.

Click here to watch her remarks on YouTube

Click here to read about the profiling incident she described

Click here to read a transcript of the full debate, starting at page 157

To be sure, H.R. 963 still needs to be taken up by the entire Congress before it can ever become law, and the Sikh Coalition will work with Senate offices to promote corrective amendments, but the warm embrace the bill received in the House Judiciary Committee underscores the ease with which legislators can discard our most basic civil rights.