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Media

Legislative Wrap-Up: Bullying in Schools

25 January 2013

Throughout the past decade there has been a national trend of legislation on bullying. In 2002, the U.S. Secret Service released a study on school shootings (in the wake of the Columbine shooting) that stated  “The prevalence of bullying found in this and other recent studies should strongly support ongoing efforts to reduce bullying in American schools.” Since then state legislatures across the country have considered, amended and proposed numerous bills on bullying. As of January 2012, 48 states had some sort of bullying legislation in effect. 

In 2012 the Arizona,  Idaho and Illinois Legislatures addressed bullying. Additionally, in the past few years LouisianaMichigan  North Carolina and Oregon have also addressed bullying in their legislative sessions. The bills have ranged from redefining bullying to include technological harassment otherwise known as “cyber bullying” to creating disciplinary actions for public school staff members who do not respond adequately in the case of bullying. State legislatures also addressed training for students and teachers on bullying prevention, required written reports on incidents of bullying, and reviewed bullying policies.

Cyber bullying has been addressed in the legislation of 38 states according to a recent study conducted by the Berkman Center for Internet and Society at Harvard University in February 2012. Cyber bullying is defined in most states as bullying that takes place online, through an electronic device such as a cell phone, or computer and does not involve face-to-face interaction. Cyber bullying has had a significant amount of news coverage particularly since a string of youth suicides in the fall of 2010.

Arizona’s House Bill 2415,  is an example of bullying legislation. Sponsored by Senators Rick Gray,  Lynne Pancrazi,  Anna Tovar,  and Kimberly Yee,  the bill establishes policies and procedures to be used in cases of harassment, intimidation, and bullying in schools.  The bill specifies that bullying, harassment, and intimidation using electronic technology and electronic communication on school computers, networks, forums, and mailing lists is prohibited whereas existing law only prohibited bullying on school grounds & property, on school buses, at school bus stops, and at school-sponsored activities and events.  The bill requires school district employees to report in writing any suspected incidents of bullying, requires school districts to establish disciplinary procedures for employees who fail to report incidents of bullying, and requires school districts to make forms available to students and parents so they can confidentially report incidents of bullying.  The bill also requires schools to keep written documentation of past reported incidents of bullying on file for 6 years. 

Sen. Yee introduced the bill after hearing of the case of a bullied 14 year old whose school did not call emergency services after he was badly beaten. Sen. Yee said, “There are devastating consequences of school bullying, and for too many years we have not held anyone accountable for these actions.” As an opponent of the bill, Rep. John Fillmore called the bill too restrictive. He said, “We’re teaching our children to shut up in a free society.” HB 2415 cleared the Arizona House floor by a narrow 38-21 vote on March 7, 2011.  The Arizona Senate then passed the bill by at 22-8 margin on April 13, 2011, and Governor Jan Brewer signed it into law.

One debate surrounding bullying legislation concerns the First Amendment rights of students. It is argued that these rights will be infringed upon when bullying restrictions extend off of school property into technological jurisdiction. At least 10 states have laws that extend to interactions between students on and off-campus if the interactions are deemed detrimental to the learning opportunities of the bullied student.

Arizona’s Senate Bill 1462  sponsored by Senator David Schapira  specifies schools’ responsibilities regarding bullying. The bill requires charter schools to enforce anti-bullying procedures, to establish disciplinary procedures for students found to have committed acts of bullying, and to protect the health and safety of students who are physically and emotionally harmed by bullying. The bill also requires school employees and administrators to receive annual training to identify and respond to bullying, and authorizes parents and students to receive similar training. 

The contentious clause of SB 1462 is the one that requires annual training sessions for teachers so they can learn to identify and respond to bullying. A major opponent of the bill, Center for Arizona Policy President Cathi Herrod wrote in her blog that the training clause would bring in unwanted organizations to conduct the training. Herrod said that “Parents send their kids to school for reading, writing and arithmetic, not to be exposed to propaganda… Groups like Equality Arizona and the Gay, Lesbian and Straight Education Network have used the bullying issue in order to gain access to our public schools.” After the bill was missed a deadline to clear the Senate to make it for a House vote, Sen. Schapira called Cathi Herrod a “legislative terrorist” and said she is “an unelected lobbyist, killed a bill that would protect all Arizona kids purely because of her intolerance of gay kids.” On March 8, 2012, the Arizona Senate passed SB 1462 16-12; it currently awaits passage in the Arizona House.

Idaho’s Senate Bill 1358,  sponsored by the Idaho Senate’s Judiciary and Rules Committee,  expands requirements for school districts regarding bullying.  The bill requires school districts to establish disciplinary policies for bullying that may include parental notification, suspension, expulsion, and report of criminal activity to law enforcement. It requires school districts to perform annual professional development for school employees to prevent and address bullying, which is a provision many states have included. This Idaho bill also establishes policies for employees to intervene on behalf of a student that is bullied, and requires school employees to report incidents of bullying to the school’s administrative personnel. This bill though, exempts home schools from its provisions. 

A sponsor of the bill, Sen. Nicole LeFavour said, “It is one of those issues that whatever young people you talk to in the state right now, they'll say it is a problem.” Some objections to the bill were expressed by Rep. Stephen Hartgen,  “It is a controversial issue and there are some pros and cons, what one person can see as bullying, another might just see as simple school yard teasing. So we don't want to overly restrict and at the same time we do want to prevent kids from having to work and go to school in an environment that's inappropriate.” The Idaho Senate passed S 1358 on a 25-8 margin on March 15, 2012. The bill died in the House Committee on Education.

Illinois’s Senate Bill 5290,  sponsored by Senators Kelly Cassidy and Heather A. Steans,  also expands school districts’ requirements regarding bullying.  The bill requires school districts and all non-public, non-sectarian elementary and secondary schools to create and implement a policy on bullying which must be updated every 2 years in conjunction with the State Board of Education.  The bill requires the policy to include the following definition of “bullying”: any physical or verbal conduct directed toward a student that places the student in fear of harm, causes a “detrimental effect” on a student's physical or mental health, interferes with the student's academic performance, or interferes with the student's ability to participate in school activities. The bill also requires school policy to include procedures for reporting, investigating, and addressing bullying. The bill requires stating that bullying is a violation of state law and school district policy. The Illinois House passed HB 5290 at a 61-49 margin however, the Senate voted to postpone consideration of the bill, essentially killing the bill for the session. 

While there are no current federal laws against bullying,  the federal government has taken actions in the past several years to address bullying in schools. Currently pending in Congress is HR 6019 which calls for the reauthorization of the Juvenile Accountability Block Grants to provide funding to states for bullying intervention and prevention programming. Other bill proposals on bullying are also pending at the national level including HR 1648,  which requires all school districts nationwide to collect statistics on bullying and provide educational prevention programs. Additionally, the re-release of stopbullying.gov in March 2010 by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services has helped to continue the national conversation on bullying. In 2011, President Barack Obama and First Lady Michelle Obama hosted the White House Conference on Bullying Prevention.  Also, in 2011, the U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan said, “That while most states have enacted legislation on this important issue, a great deal of work remains to ensure adults are doing everything possible to keep our kids safe."

This blog entry was jointly authored by Matthew Brandt and Jackie Schicker. Mathew has a Bachelor’s in Government from The University of Texas at Austin. Jackie is currently majoring in English Literature at St. Edward’s University. Both interned with Project Vote Smart in the fall of 2012.



Related tags: Arizona, blog, Idaho, Illinois, Louisiana, Michigan, North-Carolina, Oregon

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