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Home / New Iowa anti-bullying laws are coming up short, experts say
DES MOINES - New Iowa laws aimed at punishing bullies would miss the mark, several experts told an audience of more than 1,000 Monday at the state's second Bullying Prevention Conference.
Instead, they added, encompassing victim empowerment, support for counseling services and other, more holistic, methods likely will have a greater effect on bullying in schools.
But there was disagreement even among the experts invited to make speeches and host panel discussions during the daylong event at Hy-Vee Hall in downtown Des Moines.
“I think we're still looking for that middle ground,” said Emily Bazelon, an attorney and author who wrote the book “Sticks and Stones” about the bullying culture and the legal and social hurdles associated with stopping it.
One of her concerns - which was shared by several other speakers throughout the day - is that bullying is used as a term too often. She said it is important for educators and policymakers to use the label sparingly, but she also recognizes it is a very real problem that has not been fought effectively.
She compared acceptance of bullying with the way drunken driving used to be accepted and, in some instances, viewed as “kind of cool.” She said the same type of societal attitude shift is needed to combat bullying.
According to the 2012 Iowa Youth Survey, 57 percent of the state's schoolchildren reported having been bullied in the 30 days prior to the poll, up from 51.5 percent in 2005.
“Is that because we are more aware of it, so we're reporting it more?” Gov. Terry Branstad asked. “Or are there other reasons? One thing is clear: 57 percent should be a worrying figure. It's not a normal childhood rite of passage.”
In 2012, Branstad pushed an initiative that expressly allowed school officials to enforce anti-bullying policies for out-of-school incidents. The bill came out after his 2012 anti-bullying summit, the release of the documentary film “Bully” which was filmed, in part, in Sioux City and the suicide of Kenneth Weishuhn, which was blamed partially on his being bullied at South O'Brien High School.
The governor's bill died after it was sent to the Republican-controlled House of Representatives but was never called for a vote in the chamber. House leadership said there was not sufficient interest among the membership for the bill, but individual members cited issues with what they saw as government overreach and religious freedom as reasons why the bill was scuttled.
Asked about the latter point during a question-and-answer session, Bazelon said she is wary of creating exceptions in the law.
“These exceptions are usually involved in anti-gay harassment coming from a religious or moral conviction,” she said. “I think it's not a good idea to have this exception. People have to be subject to the same laws.”
Speaking to reporters, Branstad said he would try again with anti-bullying legislation and will have it ready at the beginning of the 2014 legislative session in January, although he said the actual bill is still a work in progress.
Deborah Temkin, who works on bullying issues for the Robert F. Kennedy Center for Justice and Human Rights, pushed for a more comprehensive approach.
“We have to stop saying that ‘Just Say No' to bullying is going to work,” she said. “It's not.”
Rep. Chris Hall, D-Sioux City, said he would work on legislation to encourage parental involvement when bullying occurs. It's an idea that has been tried in some states through parental notification laws, but even those laws are controversial because they can “out” lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender teens to parents.
“We've got to be very careful,” Branstad said. “Normally you want to notify the parents, but there may be some exceptional situations where you want to have a different alternative, depending upon the situation that child has with their home life. Unfortunately, many kids are living in very difficult situations.”