Weekend open thread: Anti-bullying edition

A report on alleged misconduct by three football coaches on suspension from Lincoln High School in Des Moines put bullying on my mind this weekend. After the jump I’ve posted background on the football coach story and on the statewide bullying prevention summit that Governor Terry Branstad and Lieutenant Governor Kim Reynolds will host in late November.

All topics are welcome in this open thread.  

Tom Mihalovich has been the head football coach at Lincoln for the past 12 years. He was suspended along with two assistants in early September, pending a school district investigation into allegedly abusive conduct toward student athletes. The report focused on one player, who quit the team and transferred to Dowling Catholic High School after an incident led to alleged verbal abuse, intimidation, and physical conditioning as punishment on September 3.

The investigators completed their work on October 1. WHO-TV posted links to the full reports against Mihalovich and the other two coaches. Mihalovich denies the allegations. The Des Moines School District has neither determined whether to fire the coaches nor held hearings to allow the accused coaches to respond to the reports.

Although Mihalovich has passionate supporters within the Lincoln community, including one of the assistant football coaches who was not suspended, I wouldn’t bet on him keeping his job. The investigators denote many independent accounts of the coach shouting profanity and verbal abuse at students, and many instances in which Mihalovich’s version of disputed events was not credible. Pages 21 and 22 of the report support charges of insubordination as well as conduct unbecoming a school district staff member. Based on the preponderance of the evidence, investigators determined that the coach violated the district’s bullying and harassment policy, engaged in “unethical behavior regarding student discipline” as well as “intimidation and retaliation,” and imposed unreasonable corporal punishment (in the form of extra running and drills) on September 3.

Gary Dickey, an attorney representing the family of the student who quit the Lincoln team, released the investigative reports to the media on October 4. Marc Ward, a former member of the Des Moines School Board, is representing Mihalovich, who denies the allegations. In a written statement on October 5, Ward denounced the “legally and ethically unacceptable” release of the report to the media. He said Mihalovich “looks forward to this issue being resolved through the appropriate channels” and may file a grievance against Dickey with the Iowa Supreme Court’s Grievance Commission.

In other news related to bullying, Governor Branstad and Lieutenant Governor Reynolds recently invited Iowa students to submit videos “about how bullying is being addressed in their school.” In November, Iowans will be able to vote on their favorite video from the collection, and the winner will be recognized at the Governor’s Bullying Prevention Summit in Des Moines on November 27. The Branstad administration announced plans over the summer to hold this event. More details are on the official website. Featured speakers include Sioux City Community School District Superintendent Paul Gausman and Rosalind Wiseman, a parenting and bullying expert.

The FAMiLY Leader organization run by Bob Vander Plaats flipped out in February when Branstad declined to remove the title of his office from the 7th Annual Iowa Governor’s Conference on LBGTQ Youth. In contrast, Vander Plaats tried to claim some credit for the upcoming governor’s conference:

“We are thrilled to learn that Governor Branstad and his administration has taken our lead and acted upon our recommendation to provide a comprehensive safe schools/anti-bullying summit.  We are prepared and ready to assist this initiative as long as it honors God in all aspects.”

Republican blogger Shane Vander Hart voiced social conservatives’ fears about next month’s convention, though:

I’m concerned about this summit, especially when Governor Branstad said that changes in the law might be necessary to deal with cyber-bullying.  I’m not sure if he means giving school districts authority to reach into private homes to address the issue or something else.  I’ve already been concerned with his trend to expand state government reach into the area of education so I wouldn’t be surprised if his administration attempts to do the same to address bullying.  We already have a bullying law on the books.

I’m also concerned about how the LGBT movement has latched onto bullying prevention programs.  I’m concerned about what might be considered “bullying” by groups that consider disagreement with them as hate.  I won’t deny that bullying is a problem.  I think the definition of it has been expanded way beyond where it should be compared to when I was a kid, but bullying is a problem.  If Governor Branstad can keep the focus on educating the public and keep the information on bullying in general without letting it be hijacked by gay rights groups then my concerns will be unwarranted.

Looking at the list of resources on the website I don’t hold out much hope of that happening.  That and the fact he is willing to consider addressing the topic legislatively.  I anticipate another attempt to grow government and expand the reach of government by the Branstad administration as a result of this summit.

Social conservatives have never liked the Iowa Safe Schools effort, launched during Governor Tom Vilsack’s administration in 2002 (under the name GLBT Youth in Iowa Task Force). While Chet Culver was governor and Democrats controlled both chambers of the state legislature, Iowa adopted a “safe schools law” requiring “school districts and accredited nonpublic elementary and secondary schools to have anti-bullying/anti-harassment policies.” Such policies must include:

A statement that students, staff, and volunteers shall not engage in bullying and harassing behavior of students in school, on school property, or at any school function or school-sponsored activity.

A procedure for reporting acts of bullying or harassment, including the name or job title of the school official responsible for receiving and investigating such reports.

A procedure for prompt investigation of complaints.

The policy must state that students will be protected from bullying and harassment based on any of the following traits or characteristics:  age, color, creed, national origin, race,religion, marital status, sex, sexual orientation, gender identity, physical attributes, physical or mental ability or disability, ancestry, political party preference, political belief, socioeconomic status, and familial status. The school board may add to this list, but may not omit any of the listed traits from its local policy.

The policy must be publicized, but the law does not state how schools and school districts are to publish their policies.  The most likely means of doing this will be in student handbooks or registration materials.

School officials must annually report incidents of bullying and harassment, and discipline of bullies, to the Iowa Department of Education.  This is information available to the public, both from the schools and from the Department of Education.

Although the safe schools law did not single out LGBT students for any “special” protection, it was cited in the Iowa Supreme Court’s 2009 Varnum v Brien decision on marriage as evidence that the state of Iowa does not condone discrimination against members of the LGBT community.

UPDATE: In the context of the Sioux City superintendent speaking at the bullying prevention summit, I should have mentioned that much of the documentary “Bully,” which came out earlier this year, was filmed in Sioux City. This article by Bruce Miller describes how the film was made. Superintendent Gausman discussed what district officials learned from the movie here.

Democratic State Representative Chris Hall, who represents part of Sioux City, has introduced anti-bullying legislation and would do so if re-elected to the Iowa House.

State Rep. Chris Hall, D-Sioux City, said a constituent asked him whether he was “willing to help her in drafting a bill or something that might work toward engaging the parents earlier in the process of bullying.”

Just as parents can be held liable for a chronically truant child, Hall’s bill would levy civil penalties against the parents of chronic bullies.

Most important, in Hall’s view, is that his bill “seeks to make mediation the first step.” Both sets of parents or guardians, for bully and victim, would help draft a written plan to defuse the situation.

The bill also “places a lot of discretion at the school administrator level and the county attorney’s office,” Hall added, to help protect parents of bullies who may be negotiating in good faith and yet their child continues to lash out.

Ideally, school officials would enforce district anti-bullying policies effectively and consistently, so that situations wouldn’t escalate to the point of getting mediators and county attorneys involved.

About the Author(s)


  • Branstad is doing the right thing in this case

    I give Terry Branstad credit for organizing the bullying prevention summit in the face of criticism from some Neanderthals in his own party. They’re the ones who wrote this plank in the Iowa GOP platform: “We oppose the School Anti-Bullying and Anti-Harassment Act of 2007.”

  • Football is child abuse.

    From Child Abuse: A Guide for Mandatory Reporters:

    A child is defined in Iowa Code section 232.68 as any person under the age of 18 years.

    “Physical abuse” is defined as any non-accidental physical injury, or injury which is at variance with the history given of it, suffered by a child as the result of the acts or omissions of a person responsible for the care of the child.

    Common indicators could include unusual or unexplained burns, bruises, or fractures.

    Football players have a one-in-three probability of an injury during a single season. Fractures, torn ligaments, etc. have been part of the “game” forever. While bones heal, there are many aging former football players limping around due to early-onset arthritis from old football injuries. One thing that is new is the recognition of the prevalence of concussions. Nearly 2 million brain injuries are suffered by teenage players every year.

    From “The Fragile Teenage Brain.”


    A 2004 study, meanwhile, revealed that football players with multiple concussions were 7.7 times more likely to experience a “major drop in memory performance” and that three months after a concussion they continued to experience “persistent deficits in processing complex visual stimuli.” What’s most disturbing, perhaps, is that these cognitive deficits have a real-world impact: When compared with similar students without a history of concussions, athletes with two or more brain injuries demonstrate statistically significant lower grade-point averages.

    • I read somewhere

      that there are more injuries per player in soccer than in football, although there are more head injuries in football.

  • Football is child abuse, cont.

    More from Child Abuse: A Guide for Mandatory Reporters:

    Examples of mental injury may include:

    * Terrorizing the child with continual verbal assaults, creating a climate of fear, hostility, and anxiety…

    * Verbally assaulting the child with constant, excessive name-calling, harsh threats, and sarcastic put downs that continually “beat down” the child’s self-esteem with humiliation.

    * Overpressuring the child with subtle but consistent pressure to grow up fast and to achieve too early in the areas of academics, physical or motor skills, or social interaction, which leaves the child feeling that he or she is never quite good enough.

    Like coach Mihalovich, maybe, and too many others?

  • I don't understand

    why there isn’t a “no bullying” policy, period, instead of a list of protected classes.

    I remember being bullied as the “new kid” after moving. No seat on the bus for me, heh, accompanied by lots of taunting. Doesn’t really fit under this policy.

    A certain degree of bullying is rites of passage as far as I’m concerned. Sure, I disliked it at the time, but back then, and in retrospect, I learned a lot about myself. It’s not as though one doesn’t experience similar in adulthood.

    I’m not sure I’d call extra laps after a poor performance “bullying” behavior. The profanity is clearly not appropriate and does lead me to believe that the coach may have been too aggressive.

    I talk with a lot of kids who are fresh out of high school. All of them complain about the “PC” environment, and I don’t think they are bullies. I do think that a bullying policy that relies on fitting the recipient to a particular classs — LGBT, foreign-born, disabled, etc is malformed and serves to stigmatize the victims more than anything else. I don’t care for a policy that implies bullying is not an infraction unless it’s a for a particular reason. Why not have a zero tolerance policy for bullying without delving into motivation or identity issues? It’s not like teachers and administrators have all kinds of free time to referee these incidents. First time, suspension, second time expulsion.

    Now, OT. Niels Bohr’s 127th birthday! Nicely done, Google.

    • protected classes...

      Protected classes are listed so the state can collect the data based on each class/category of bullying and work with schools in identifying appropriate programs/strategies to meet those needs.  So if a school has an issue with bullying based around ability – there are specific curriculums/programs you can implement to meet that need.  If you just list all…you don’t get that data.  And yes with DSM Register articles there is some underreporting still happening – some schools do a great job of reporting and use this as an important tool.  

      • this makes no sense

        If you just list all…you don’t get that data.

        I’d be very skeptical of a targeted response to a specific category if all the data were not included in the model.