For the past several legislative sessions – a bully bill in some form or another has been proposed and supported by Governor Branstad. In each session, the bill has taken on many different forms and have gone from extreme (license to bully provision) to this year's shocking development.
Read on for the latest in the Governor's proposed 2015 Bully Free Iowa Act.
Bullying is a complicated issue and can be a bit overwhelming of a topic at times. In 2007, Iowa became the 10th state to pass a comprehensive bully bill and our current law is a wonderful foundation for efforts around bully prevention.
In 2012 and 2013, Governor Branstad held summits that brought together state and national leaders on the topic. While many encouraged research-based recommendations – we still don't see those in the Governor's proposed 2015 Bully Free Iowa Act.
Just my two cents – you can write the best policy in the world – but if the research-based best practices aren't put into place – won't see any major changes in behaviors or school culture.
On to the bill! For those interested – the current bill number is HSB39 and the subcommittee members for the House are Reps. Stanerson, Byrnes, and Mascher.
- Mentoring Program – The bill creates a pilot program in four schools (two middle, two high schools) that will address bullying. The appropriation given would be $50,000 and would be up to an RFP process among schools. While mentoring has shown to be a great tool in addressing bullying– in particular among students who commit bullying behaviors – this is a misguided attempt. $50,000 will not be sufficient funds to carry out a mentor program in four schools. Mentoring is incredibly expensive. This leaves a lot of questions as some mentor programs are great “feel good” activities with no research backing. It's a noble gesture by the Governor's Office but it needs more teeth around being a research & outcome based program. Plus there needs to be better resources behind this if it would be successful.
- Cyberbullying – We see another attempt to add social networking sites to the current bullying law. Everyone knows that current law 280.28 already covers cyberbullying and this is a doesn't really change anything change. It's nice to add the lines on social networking sites but the word electronic is in there. The real problem has been the Governor's Office constantly stating that cyberbullying isn't covered – that has given some an out to say it doesn't need to be addressed.
- New Traits/Characteristics – Iowa Code 280.28 (current bullying law) lists 17 traits or characteristics. The Governor has proposed adding the following: behavior. friendship, or relationship with others, or any other distinguishing characteristic. This paragraph shall be construed to broadly achieve the purpose of this section. The only thing I want to be sure to mention here is we need to ensure that schools do not simply check the friendship or relationship box everytime there is bullying. The 17 traits are listed so schools can identify their data needs – so if there were 20 cases of bullying based on race – the school would know that a program or more education was needed around race. See district data on bullying from 2011-12 school year. (this data is very inaccurate already with many schools reporting 0. It does give some sort of a snapshot but it is already inaccurate and don't need it to be worse)
- Parent Notification – Having parents and families involved in school culture issues like bullying is important and critical. My primary argument has been around ensuring it isn't instant notification especially for LGBTQ students who may be outted and as a result thrown out of their homes. There are enough homeless LGBTQ youth and do not need legislation to out many more before they are ready. LGBTQ youth are already at risk for a number of issues and bullying has severe consequences for this population. The Governor included a provision this year saying:
- Authority off school grounds – This is a change that spells out more specifically when a school must intervene in situations of bullying. The recommendation to schools now is if it impacts the learning environment you must intervene but this provision helps spell out the authority even further. I expect opposition especially among First Amendment advocates.
- Open Enrollment – This is a good addition for including those students involved in extra curricular activities who open enroll because of a bullying situation at their school. Right now if a student open enrolls they are not allowed to participate immediately in an activity and there is a stated waiting period. This provision says that if a student was the target of bullying and open enrolls that there is no waiting period.
- Investigator Training – At the end of the bill is an appropriation for $150,000 for investigator training for the state. While investigator training was a critical need just a couple years ago – the state, area education agencies, and school districts have invested tens of thousands already in investigator training. I've been told recent trainings haven't seen many in attendance because most administrators are now trained on investigating bullying. If the Governor would like to spend $150,000 – I'd strongly encourage using the funds for a full time staff person at the Iowa Department of Education to build further infrastructure in the state on the topic and take phone calls from parents/schools on the issue and give guidance. Right now there is no one at the Iowa Department of Education who is responsible for this – it is distributed among staff who have other projects.
Overall I'd give the bill a C/C+. It's not a terrible bill and won't push us backwards. If there will be funds appropriated it's important they are spent on the most critical needs on this topic. I'd highly recommend reviewing what the Iowa Department of Education's report on needed expenditures for bullying prevention of the state would look like.