Anti-bullying bill clears first legislative hurdle

BullyingBy Bob Eschliman


A major policy proposal made during Iowa Gov. Terry Branstad’s Condition of the State Address in January could find its way to floor debate in the House or Senate soon.

House File 490, which is a successor bill to House Study Bill 39 offered at the beginning of the session by Branstad, passed out of the House Education Committee last Monday. Senate File 345, a companion bill, also moved out of the Senate Education Committee that day.

The bill would require the Iowa Department of Education to ensure each school district has access to adequate training to conduct investigations of complaints of incidents of harassment or bullying pursuant to Iowa Code. Section 280.28 relates to school anti-harassment and anti-bullying policies.

Under the proposed legislation, IDOE would provide training annually to at least one employee of every public school district. It would also be required to begin a pilot student-mentoring program to “explore how student leadership can help prevent bullying and violence in schools.”

“The program shall promote best practices for bullying and violence prevention for middle and high school students,” the bill’s explanatory statement says. “The department must establish the program in at least two middle schools and two high schools, which shall include both urban and rural schools.”

HF 490/SF 345 also modifies the definition of harassment and bullying to include the use of electronic and Internet-based communications. It also modifies the definition by adding “behavior” and “distinguishing characteristic” to the definitions of harassment and bullying.

Under the proposed legislation, schools would be required to adopt policies to notify, as soon as practicable, the parents or guardians of the alleged targeted student(s) and perpetrator(s) in a reported incident of harassment or bullying. The policies must include an exception if a school official or a student “believes notification would subject the targeted student to rejection, abuse, or neglect.”

“The bill grants school officials the authority to investigate and impose school discipline or take other action in cases of alleged incidents of harassment or bullying that occur outside of school, off of school property, or away from school functions or school-sponsored activities if certain conditions are met,” the bill’s explanatory statement says. “Those conditions are that a parent, guardian, student, school employee, or volunteer reports an incident of harassment or bullying pursuant to the school’s anti-harassment and anti-bullying policy; and that the alleged incident of harassment or bullying has an effect on school grounds that creates an objectively hostile school environment that places the student in reasonable fear of harm to the student’s person or property; has a substantially detrimental effect on the student’s physical or mental health; has the effect of substantially interfering with a student’s academic performance; or has the effect of substantially interfering with the student’s ability to participate in or benefit from the services, activities, or privileges provided by a school.”

HF 490/SF 345 states such investigations can be forwarded to “appropriate community-based agencies, 21 including but not limited to”:

  • social services agencies,
  • law-enforcement agencies, and
  • nonprofit organizations.

Varsity-level student-athletes who are targeted for bullying or harassment may open-enroll to another school district without incurring the current 90-day ineligibility period, under the proposed legislation. In those cases, both the district of residence and the other school district must agree to allow the pupil to participate immediately in a varsity interscholastic sport.

HF 490/SF 345 would also require the IDOE to convene a public-private work group representing state and local agencies, citizens, community groups, and organizations with “experience and expertise in the areas of anti-bullying education, research, and training.” The work group will review current research, data, and strategies, and make recommendations to “enhance statewide school climate improvement and bullying prevention, awareness, and intervention.”

The proposed legislation states the IDOE must convene the work group by Oct. 1 of this year, and it must submit its findings and recommendations in a final report to the department and the chairs and ranking members of the House and Senate education committees by Dec. 15, 2016.

A number of lobbyist groups have declared their positions on the bill. Some are in favor of it, while others are “undecided.” No group or organization has declared its opposition to the bill at this time.