DES MOINES | How best to address bullying incidents in Iowa’s schools is an issue the governor and state lawmakers have wrestled with for three years.
Gov. Terry Branstad has made anti-bullying programs one of his top priorities, and this year, his proposal has received more support than ever. It would train school officials on how to identify and manage bullying incidents, give schools the authority to address online bullying even if it happens off school grounds and create a pilot program in which older students would mentor younger students.
Branstad and other state leaders say they think this year represents the best opportunity to adopt the proposal, yet an early vote on the measure last week in an Iowa Senate committee was supported only by Democrats. The party-line vote was a potential red flag for a measure that was expected to have broad support from both political parties.
Was it just a snag in the lawmaking process, and will this, indeed, be the year that Iowa “stands up to the bully,” as Branstad declared in his Condition of the State address in January?
Or was last week’s vote a warning sign that the attempt to create an anti-bullying law will fizzle out for a third time?
“This is my third time being on the subcommittee (for the anti-bulling bill), so maybe the third time’s the charm,” Rep. Josh Byrnes, R-Osage, said, hopefully.
But ongoing debate among lawmakers about whether schools should have authority to address online incidents, and other issues, remain unresolved, if last week’s vote in the Senate Education Committee is any indication.
The governor’s proposal gives schools the authority to investigate and address bullying when it occurs online, even if the incident did not occur during school hours or on school grounds.
It is a critical component of any anti-bullying effort, say supporters of the proposal.
“We have to recall that cyberbullying is an entirely new challenge,” said Paul Gausman, the superintendent of the Sioux City Community School District, which has implemented many anti-bullying strategies, some of which inspired pieces of Branstad’s proposal. “We have to recognize that even 10 years ago we didn’t have this particular challenge. A fresh challenge is going to require fresh strategies in order to mitigate that as a part of what we do.”
Gausman said he thinks more than half of all bullying incidents his school district deals with involves online bullying.
“I think that the more the law can do to give us that strength to be able to use any means necessary to discover the depth of the bullying challenge and to respond appropriately to the entirety of the challenge of bullying — which would include, in those cases, the cyberbullying component — would be beneficial to us,” Gausman said.
The off-campus authority provision has not been fully embraced by a pair of advocacy groups: the faith-based Family Leader and the American Civil Liberties Union. One Republican senator last week raised the question of whether it opens schools to civil lawsuits.
Sen. Amy Sinclair, R-Allerton, posed the question to Sen. Rob Hogg, D-Cedar Rapids, who is overseeing the proposal in the Senate.
“I think it’s actually just the opposite of that,” Hogg said. “By saying (school officials) have this permission to act, you actually resolve that in their favor.”
Other disagreements still could derail the effort to pass a state anti-bullying package.
For example, lawmakers and the governor seem to be closer to agreement on how much funding to put into the program — a sticking point in years past — but now some legislators want the programs and the funding mechanism kept separate. Others want the two kept together in the same bill.
Despite the ongoing debate — and that partisan vote last week in the Senate — top lawmakers and the governor himself say the issue remains a priority and continue to express confidence they will reach an agreement.
“This is a first step in the process,” said Senate Minority Leader Bill Dix, R-Shell Rock, the leader of those six senators who voted against the bill last week. “There are a number of improvements to the bill that are being discussed, and I fully expect as that bill is improved moving through the process, there will be very broad support for it.”
Gausman, who has worked with the governor’s office in recent years as the Sioux City schools have become a model for addressing bullying, has followed the legislative process closely.
Gausman said he, too, remains optimistic lawmakers and the governor will deliver this year.
“I’m still comfortable with the progress that’s being made. I’m still optimistic that this legislation will make it through both chambers and to the governor for his signature this year to become law,” Gausman said, before couching that statement. “I know enough about this process and have been engaged enough in this process not to entirely count on any particular result out of a legislative process. It’s just how that system works.”