Iowa Governor's Bullying Prevention Summit news roundup

More than 1,100 people attended the Governor's Bullying Prevention Summit in Des Moines yesterday. To his credit, Governor Terry Branstad stayed all day to listen to speakers like Sioux City Superintendent of Schools Paul Gausman and Rosalind Wiseman, author of the book "Queen Bees and Wannabes." The governor also announced a new hotline and website designed to help young people targeted by bullies.

I was unable to watch the livestream from what sounds like a fantastic event. After the jump I've posted a bunch of news and links about the summit as well as background on Iowa's anti-bullying policies.  

Branstad announced the big news of the day during his speech:

And today, I am proud to announce the launch of a new bullying and suicide prevention resource - Your Life Iowa. This hotline and website, funded by the Iowa Department of Public Health in partnership with Boys Town, the Iowa Youth Advisory Committee and the Iowa Department of Education, will provide help to Iowans 24 hours a day, 7 days a week.

Trained counselors will offer support and guidance to bullied youth who feel they have run out of options. Your-Life-Iowa-dot-org will also serve as a go-to resource where Iowans can get information about how to be part of the solution to ending bullying and youth suicide.

Here's the link to the Your Life Iowa site. The 24-hour hotline number is 1-855-581-8111. Starting in December, young people targeted by bullies or struggling with suicidal thoughts will be able to access the support network by texting "talk" to 85511.

Branstad noted in his remarks that the Iowa Department of Education "earlier this year launched a new data collection system to provide a more accurate picture of bullying in schools. It also gives school leaders a clear definition of bullying." But he would like to see further action:

Numerous efforts are under way to stop bullying in Iowa. But we are a long way from where we need to be. So what do I hope we will accomplish today?

We must send a clearer message that schools alone cannot stop bullying, that it takes the community.

I hope we learn more about how to change the culture inside and outside schools - with concrete steps - so bullying is not tolerated.

Every student should know that if they report being bullied, adults will take them seriously and that other students will stand up for them in a nonviolent way.

We also need to examine whether state law can be strengthened to help schools better address bullying.

Together, we must be more engaged in the effort to prevent bullying.

In 2007, the Iowa House and Senate passed and Governor Chet Culver signed the Iowa Safe Schools Act. The law took effect in September of that year, and as of September 2010, all accredited schools in Iowa were required to implement its terms. The Iowa Safe Schools Act

defined "harassment" and "bullying" as "any electronic, written, verbal, or physical act or conduct toward a student which is based on any actual or perceived trait or characteristic of the student and which creates an objectively hostile school environment [...]." The law further defined "trait or characteristic of the student" as any of the following 17 categories: "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, or familial status."

Click here for a more comprehensive summary of the Iowa Safe Schools law provisions. Earlier this week, Mike Wiser talked to experts about how that law could be improved.

Iowa's policy already covers cyberbullying, said Amy Williamson, bureau chief of school improvement for the Iowa Department of Education, because the law covers "electronic" means of harassment.

"If a student is being bullied by a text message or Facebook or on email - even if it's not during school hours - if it's affecting their ability to go to school and get an education, then it does matter, and it needs to get investigated," she said.

That's a good start, said Justin Patchin, an associate professor of criminal justice at the University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire and the co-director of the Cyberbullying Research Center.

He notes the department's definition allows in-school consequences for out-of-school behavior. It's a legal precedent established by the landmark case Tinker v. Des Moines in 1969, although not all school systems take such a broad view.

But, Patchin said, the law should really say cyberbullying - in addition to bullying by electronic means - and then define that in order to get the point across. [...]

Like Patchin, [Jennifer Dounay Zinth of the Education Commission of the States] said "cyberbullying" should be listed and defined in the law.

She also said the law should explicitly state that parents and school staff who witness or suspect bullying must report it. The Iowa law defines a procedure for reporting, but she said, "nowhere does state policy explicitly say that adults who witness or suspect bullying must report such incidents."

She credits Iowa for having bullying training written into the law but is wary of the clause that says money for training is provided "to the extent that funds are available." A stronger way, she said, is to do what Massachusetts has done and make the training available at no cost to the district.

Iowa Safe Schools provides training workshops to about 2,500 Iowa educators, administrators, social workers, counselors, business leaders, and others per year. But in a time of budget austerity, school districts may view such workshops as a luxury they can't afford.

The Republican-controlled Iowa House is likely to be the main obstacle to strengthening the anti-bullying law. Democratic support for the bill was unanimous in both legislative chambers in 2007. But just three House Republicans and six Senate Republicans voted for the final version of the Iowa Safe Schools Act. Linda Miller is the only Republican still serving in the House who voted for this bill on final passage. Brad Zaun and Hubert Houser are the only yes votes on the Republican side who still serve in the Senate.

Some social conservatives view state government anti-bullying efforts as a stealthy part of the homosexual agenda. (The Iowa Supreme Court cited the 2007 anti-bullying law in its Varnum v Brien decision striking down the Defense of Marriage Act.) Others fear anti-bullying laws will be used as a pretext to expand big government's reach into private homes.

I agree with Branstad that any new legislation in this area has to balance concerns about bullying with free speech protections. I commend him for keeping an open mind about the issue.

The summit kicked off with a public showing of this video, produced by Waukee High School students:

Lieutenant Governor Kim Reynolds acknowledged the students who made that video.

Speaking of which, students from 23 schools entered the governor's contest for anti-bullying videos. The winners were announced yesterday:

The first place winner of the video contest was Hartley-Melvin-Sanborn Community School District of Hartley, Iowa with nearly 37,000 views and will receive a $500 prize and a visit from Governor Branstad and Lt. Governor Reynolds. Lisbon Community Schools, of Lisbon, was awarded second place with over 28,000 views and will receive a $350 cash prize. Central Lee Middle School, of Donnellson, took third place with over 25,000 views and will receive a $150 cash prize.

Originally, the contest was going to recognize only one winner, but the Change at the Anamosa State Penitentiary raised money to award second and third place.

At this writing, I am unable to find the winning videos online, but I'll add them to this post if that changes.

Since the movie "Bully" shined a light on one Sioux City school, Gausman has become an advocate for stronger action to combat bullying. Mike Wiser reported yesterday,

About 15 minutes into his opening speech, Sioux City Superintendent of Schools Paul Gausman spoke the word that became the underlying theme of the statewide bullying prevention summit.

"Be an upstander, not a bystander," Gausman said.

An upstander, he said, is a person who stands up for what they believe and who stands up for others.

More excerpts from Gausman's remarks:

"We knew [the documentary] would be less than flattering," he said. "We opened our doors to criticism and believe me, I know when the film is opening in a new country based on the influx of emails we receive."

The upside of the film is that it launched a nationwide dialogue on bullying in the schools.

"Our participation in this video has opened the door to some of the richest conversation we have had in our community," Gausman said.

In order to effectively work against bullying, it's important to understand the components of bullying, he said.

"If you see a bully, you have got to recognize that power and control are at the root of their action," Gausman said. "It isn't necessarily about evil. Second, if you are a bystander, it's a tacit permission for bullying. Third and not the least of importance, we have to look at the status of the bullied. Some are incredibly vulnerable."

The Sioux City Community School District had bullying intervention programs in place long before the documentary was filmed. Of notable success are programs aimed at bystanders.

"More students are now intervening," Gausman said. "More students are willing to be 'upstanders' themselves."

Rosalind Wiseman gave the keynote address to the summit. Radio Iowa posted the audio to her full hour-long speech here. Excerpts:

Wiseman urged teachers and administrators in the audience to become the "personification of ethical leadership" in their schools - making it clear what kind of language and behavior is not acceptable.

"These children are our sacred responsibilities," she said, "not only their brains, but their hearts and their bodies." [...]

"What school has always been about - always - is about young people understanding, for better and for worse, the social contract," Wiseman said. "It has always been about what democracy really looks like and how they learn what we stand for on a very concrete, day-to-day basis."

Wiseman also cautioned adults not to "bully back" when they confront a kid who's said or done something objectionable, as she said it's often the "second hit" that gets noticed rather than the first.

Sometimes well-meaning adults fail to address the problem effectively.

Featured speaker Rosalind Wiseman, a parenting and bullying expert, urged teachers, parents and other adults to learn how to react skillfully, rather than superficially, to young bullying perpetrators and targets. For example, banners with anti-bullying messages in the school hallways mean very little to children, she said.

"What you are showing by being here is not that this is superficial to you, but that you are here and committed," she said. Wiseman wrote "Queen Bees and Wannabes: Helping Your Daughter Survive Cliques, Gossip, Boyfriends, and the New Realities of Girl World," the best-selling book that was the basis of the movie "Mean Girls."

Many adults who haven't received adequate training to combat bullying make the problems worse when they intervene, Wiseman said. Adults amplify the problems when they single out the bullying targets for protection rather than confronting the perpetrators, or by reacting superficially when young people come to them for help.

"Instead of saying, 'Ignore it, be the better friend, don't let it bother you,' this is the time to teach social competency and dignity together," she said. "When a kid comes to you with a problem, you say, 'I'm really sorry this happened to you. Thank you for telling me. Together we're going to figure this out. I'm not going to solve this problem for you, but we're going to work on it together.'"

Senator Tom Harkin was working in Washington yesterday, but he expressed his support for the summit and said he hoped Congress would act on the Successful Safe & Healthy Students Act. Harkin introduced that bill in 2011. From the official summary:

Successful, Safe, and Healthy Students Act of 2011 - Directs the Secretary of Education to award grants to states to: (1) develop, improve, and implement state reporting and information systems that measure conditions for learning, based on surveys of school students and staff; and (2) award competitive subgrants to local educational agencies (LEAs) or nonprofit organizations that use such measurement systems to make comprehensive improvements to school-level conditions for learning.

Identifies conditions conducive to learning as those that: (1) promote physical activity, education, fitness, and nutrition; (2) promote mental health; (3) prevent violence, harassment, and substance abuse among students; and (4) promote safe and supportive schools and communities.

Conditions a state's grant eligibility on its: (1) having a statewide physical education requirement that is consistent with widely recognized standards; and (2) requiring its LEAs to establish policies that prevent and prohibit harassment in schools, notify students and parents of prohibited conduct each year, and provide students and parents with grievance procedures that target such conduct.

As the chair of the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pension Committee, Harkin should be well-positioned to move this bill forward in the upper chamber, or at least out of his committee. Perhaps it can be attached to an appropriations bill.

Any relevant comments are welcome in this thread.

UPDATE: At his regular weekly press conference on December 3, Branstad repeated that he might support changes to Iowa law.

"I think there also are some things that can be done to strengthen and improve out law to provide better tools to schools and to parents in combating this significant problem of bullying." The governor said he is working with his staff and the Department of Education director to look at the issues and potential changes.

Conservative blogger Shane Vander Hart posted an open letter to Branstad regarding state law on bullying. Like many social conservatives, he would rather see the current law repealed than strengthened.

I wanted to write to you to thank you for the comprehensive approach you took with your bullying summit. Many of us who have been concerned that this important issue has been taken over by special interest groups were concerned that we were going to see more of the same. I'm thankful that my concern was unjustified.

In the remarks that you gave yesterday you said, "we need to examine whether state law can be strengthened to help schools better address bullying." That gives me pause. If you were to advocate repealing or at least making the current law comprehensive instead of just targeting special interest groups (as we know that kids from all sizes, ages, religions, gender and sexual orientations are bullied) that would be one thing.

I'm concerned, however, that you are considering support of additional anti-bullying measures. I would like to ask you to reconsider. I have 20 years of experience working with adolescents. The last 12 years I have worked with high-risk youth. I have seen this problem first hand and know how destructive it can be. That said I have never seen government be able to deal with the problem effectively. The primary reason is that we can't legislate kids to be kind to one another. As long as we have kids there will always be a problem.

This is a problem handled best at the local level through grassroots efforts with in schools, student groups, community civic groups, churches and youth serving organizations. They can be effective where government cannot. So I encourage you to lend your voice to the issue. To pardon the pun, the "bully pulpit" can be effective. I just ask that you'd pick up your veto pen should additional legislation pass and ask that you wouldn't be the initiator of such a bill.

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