The Ottumwa Courier

October 14, 2013

Branstad continues to work on bullying prevention

Associated Press

---- — DES MOINES, Iowa (AP) — Bullying prevention will again be a key focus for Gov. Terry Branstad this fall, after a push for legislation meant to help school districts combat harassment on social media sites failed during the last legislative session.

In a few weeks, Branstad will host a second bullying summit in Des Moines. The event will feature panels with students, educators and lawmakers discussing how to make kids feel safe at school. Headlining the program will be journalist Emily Bazelon, the author of "Sticks and Stones: Defeating the Culture of Bullying and Rediscovering the Power of Character and Empathy."

Looking ahead to the 2014 legislative session, Branstad's special assistant for education Linda Fandel said the governor's office is considering taking another pass at legislation to toughen the state's anti-bullying laws. The bullying bill offered by Branstad earlier this year would have updated state guidelines for school districts to include bullying that occurs outside school on social media websites like Facebook.

But while the bill received subcommittee approval in the House it never moved forward. The exact reasons it stalled remain unclear, though concerns from lawmakers over student free speech and the logistics of implementing the measure clearly played a role. Matt Carver, legal services director for the School Administrators of Iowa, which worked on the bill, said he thought there was confusion about the legislation.

"I think some of it was that there was some confusion about the extent of the authority we wished for," Carver said. "Some may have interpreted that we were trying to give administrators authority to get into home life."

No recent bullying data was available from the state Department of Education. But in the 2012 Iowa Youth Survey, 57 percent of the sixth, eighth and 11th graders surveyed reported some experience being bullied in the previous 30 days. That number was up from 2010, when 50 percent of students surveyed in those grades reported bullying.

Branstad held his first bullying summit a year ago. That event followed some high-profile bullying incidents in the state.

In April 2012, a 14-year-old boy from Primghar committed suicide following bullying at school and online after he told people he was gay. In June of that year, a Mason City girl and her mother sued the Mason City school district, saying it did nothing to protect the teen from bullying.

Carver, who plans to participate in the upcoming conference, said he was hopeful another attempt would be made at legislation or other ways to help school leaders deal with the problem.

Fandel also said the legislation was hindered because there wasn't enough advance collaboration among the various education groups. This year, she said the governor's office was reaching out to stakeholders early.

"This year we have started to have conversations with a lot of people who have an interest in bullying prevention," Fandel said.

Fandel said the focus of the summit this year was on practical steps students, educators and parents can take to prevent bullying.

"We really want to change the culture so we reduce bullying as much as possible," Fandel said. "It's not an easy problem to respond to. But I think we have to do a better job whether we do it in changes in state law or local school district policy or raising awareness."

Tammy Wawro, president of the Iowa State Education Association, which represents about 34,000 teachers, support staff and other educators, said the union did not take a position on the legislation this year, but favored working collaboratively on bullying prevention and cyber-bullying.

"Absolutely it is a concern and we want to do it right and do it together," said Wawro, who noted the union offers bullying prevention training courses. "If people think what happens on Facebook doesn't impact our classrooms, they're out of touch."

Democratic State Rep. Chris Hall, of Sioux City, said the 2014 legislative session might be an easier time to enact new bullying legislation. He noted that during the most recent session lawmakers grappled with some big policy issues — property taxes, education spending and Medicaid expansion — which left little time for focus on this issue.

"Knowing a number of big ticket issues were taken off the table last year, I think it provides the opportunity to bring the issue forward. I get the sense the governor is being proactive," Hall said. "The odds are the governor may have a bill I would like to support."