The Ottumwa Courier

February 7, 2014

Mr. Pedersen goes to Des Moines

By MARK NEWMAN Courier staff writer
Ottumwa Courier

---- — ELDON — A local school superintendent was one of the experts lawmakers wanted to talk to this week.

Cardinal Superintendent Joel Pedersen told teachers he’d be gone for the day after state legislators contacted him about the subject of bullying. He joined other school officials, as well as bullying victims, at the State Capitol in Des Moines.

According to the Associated Press, “officials told Iowa lawmakers that anti-bullying bills wouldn’t solve every problem but would make a big difference” to many students.

“I was asked to speak by an assistant to the governor ... who I’d worked with in the past,” Pedersen told the Courier. “She knew we’d worked quite a bit on school climate. She asked if I could bring a small school perspective. So there were superintendents from Sioux City, Waterloo, Council Bluffs — and me, from Eldon.”

Subcommittees in the state House and Senate took up the bills, both of which would require that parents be notified if school officials learn their children have been bullied. The bills also would require that administrators and teachers be given training for responding to and preventing bullying, and they would let officials respond to cases of cyberbullying away from school because such actions affect students at school.

Pedersen found that last section to be a bit ambiguous.

“I went up there with my own questions: I found that [school] administrators would act if there was a complaint but would not be expected to [constantly] police Facebook.”

Jacob Stallman, an 18-year-old from Tipton, said his experiences with bullying prove legislation is needed.

Since fifth grade, Stallman said he has been ridiculed for anything from his weight to his sexuality. He knew something needed to change when his peers took the bullying to social media, posting harsh comments on Facebook and Twitter, and administrators at his school didn’t take action.

His situation worsened when he received a death threat from a group of students. He never learned the identities of the students.

“All I know is that I’m walking through the same halls as them at school,” he said.

Both bills would give administrators and teachers discretion on how they respond to bullying complaints.

Although both would also require that districts provide training on handling bullying situations, they vary on how to carry out and pay for the training. The House proposal would use $25,000 for online training, while the Senate bill seeks $300,000 for training.

Pedersen said he supports the bill, but the funding part is not exactly what he’d want to see: Allocating money to school climate rather than webinars is what can make a difference. The culture in a school is one of the biggest factors in resolving hostility. That’s what he’s seen in Eldon at the Cardinal Community School District.

Rep. Quentin Stanerson, R-Center Point, said no legislation wouldn’t end bullying, but it would be a step in the right direction.

The House panel approved its bill. The Senate subcommittee didn’t take action but will discuss its bill again.

“I think that schools are working hard on this topic,” Pedersen told the Courier Friday. “It’s not an easy fix — and it’s not just for schools. The next step is to engage communities. I don’t think bullying should be another thing we ask schools to fix alone. We all have to step up.”

Gov. Terry Branstad has said anti-bullying is a priority during his Condition of the State address.

— With reporting by the Associated Press. Courier reporter Mark Newman is on Twitter @couriermark