Anti-bullying bill to be introduced in the House

A proposed update to the Iowa Code would give school administrators more authority over cyber-bullying.

Gov. Terry Branstad’s Bullying Prevention Summit in Des Moines in November brought to light what school administrators and legislators perceive to be failings in the code.

Tim Albrecht, communications director for Branstad’s office, said the summit, which hosted 1,200 Iowans, was a place where advocates of the cause shared ideas. In particular, he said, cyber-bullying has made itself the main issue in schools, and the code as written prohibits school officials from intervening.

“No longer is a student being locked in a locker,” he said. “It’s a student being bullied over their Facebook page, over their Twitter.”

The proposed changes, detailed in House Study Bill 196, give administrators more authority to address cyber-bullying by adding social networking to the definition of electronic communication and stipulating that nothing prevents administrators from disciplining students outside school.

Albrecht said the proposal is “modernizing Iowa’s code to keep up with today’s bullying tactics.”

School Administrators of Iowa, in consultation with the Iowa Department of Education, spearheaded the code update. Rep. Ron Jorgensen, R-Sioux City, who is the chair of the House Education Committee, will introduce the bill at an upcoming session.

The bill also distinguishes between bullying and harassment and broadens the definition, adding “any distinguishing characteristic” to the laundry list of criteria that already includes sexual orientation, socioeconomic status, race and religion.

Furthermore, it requires schools to make their anti-bullying policy and reports of harassment available online, and it provides civil and criminal immunity to those who report harassment and bullying “reasonably and in good faith.”

Also, Albrecht noted, the bill stipulates that it cannot impede students’ First Amendment rights, although even without such a provision, the bill would not have the authority to override First Amendment rights guaranteed by the Constitution.

Matt Carver, legal services director for the School Administrators of Iowa, said the governor’s summit highlighted the need for change, and administrators are always sensitive to students’ free expression rights, but administrators need authority to act on matters outside the school.

“Families are coming to administrators and the administrator’s hands are tied,” he said.

Aiddy Phomvisay, principal at Marshalltown High School, said if the bill becomes law, it would work synergistically with programs MHS is already putting in place.

Anything that works to support a positive culture of reinforcement and community collaboration is something he is on board with, he said.

However, he said should the law hand down mandates, he said he hopes that legislators take funding into account, saying that filling out laborious paperwork consumes school staff’s time and is often not the most productive use of that time.

“I think they are on the right track,” he said. “But the real work is what we teach and what we reinforce.”