Photo credit: Diego Grez (CC-By-3.0)
Photo credit: Diego Grez (CC-By-3.0)
Photo credit: Diego Grez (CC-By-3.0)

Iowa Governor Terry Branstad made an anti-bullying effort one of his top priorities when giving his Condition of the State address.  It was something he discussed last session, but there seems to be a greater effort this year to see some legislation pass.

Branstad said during his remarks last week, “Every day, children in Iowa schools are tormented by bullies. The bullies attack at school and on the Internet. They lurk not just in corners of the schoolhouse but also on Snapchat, Instagram, Facebook, Twitter, Yik Yak and through text messaging.”

He’s right that bullying has become more complex, but is a government solution the right approach?

“Iowa common sense tells us that every child in Iowa deserves to go to school each and every day in a safe and respectful learning environment. They deserve a classroom and community that allows them to grow and flourish, not live in fear of when and where the bully will strike again,” Branstad added.

Who could be against that?  “It’s for the children” after all.  The devil, is in the proverbial details however.

So Branstad’s anti-bullying bill, HSB 39 – “The Bully Free Iowa Act of 2015″ was filed in the Iowa House, friendlier territory for him.  It is similar to last year’s version.

One aspect that I like is the notification feature that requires schools to notify parents/students if they are directly involved in a bullying/harassment incident. Parents are the ones who can ultimately nip this problem in the bud, especially the parents of kids who are bullies.

The bill, like last year’s, does not force schools to police this behavior off school grounds. The bill states schools may rather than shall “investigate and impose school discipline or take other action in the case of an alleged incident of harassment or bullying that occurs outside of school, off of school property, or away from a school function or school-sponsored activity” if certain conditions are met. It also states in order for the school to investigate or intervene the “alleged incident of harassment or bullying has an effect on school grounds that creates an objectively hostile school environment.” In other words there is a clear standard this behavior is impacting the school day. An argument can be made that a school has a vested interest there, but do we need a new state law for schools to deal with behavior that does manifest on school grounds?

There is an exception for notification. The bill states “if a school official or a student who is the target of harassment or bullying reasonably believes notification would subject the targeted student to rejection, abuse, or neglect related to actual or perceived sexual orientation, gender identity, or gender expression.”

I see two problems with this language.  First, no other classification of students is considered, and second they don’t define what “reasonably believes” entails.  I’m sorry that is way, way too subjective. Unless there is documented, founded abuse or neglect on the part of the parents/guardians they should notify – period.

Branstad touted this aspect of the bill in his Condition of the State address.  “This year’s anti-bullying legislation allows for an exception from notification if a bullied student and a school official believe that parental notification could lead to abuse, neglect or rejection,” Branstad said.

Who convinced him that was a good idea, and then worse yet, focus on just LGBT or perceived LGBT students?

The bill also sets up training and a pilot program. It also includes language related to academic eligibility for students who leave a school district due to a founded incident of bullying. The price tag is $200,000 – $150,000 for training and $50,000 for the pilot program.

Education in Iowa raises some good questions. “(D)oes school employee reporting open the door for schools to employ people for the purpose of, or assign employees to the duty of, surveillance of student social media use? Should it be limited to school employees who have had incidents reported to them by students, parents, or guardians?”

Do we have some student privacy concerns?  Doesn’t the thought of schools policing social networking sites seem just creepy?

Needless to say there are a lot of potential problems with this bill.  Do we need a new state law to police bullying when parents and schools working together can significantly reduce instances of bullying?  Aren’t schools having a difficult enough time with their primary mission?

A government solution is not what we need in this arena.

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