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Iowa lawmakers clash over competing bullying bills

KOURTNEY LIEPELT, Associated Press Published: March 8, 2014 0

DES MOINES, Iowa (AP) — Cracking down on bullying in Iowa schools has been a priority this year for Gov. Terry Branstad, but lawmakers have criticized two competing bills and are seeking changes to the proposals.

A bill in the House and another in the Senate both focus on giving schools the tools and authority to better address bullying, but neither seems close to being approved and sent to Branstad.

Lawmakers have promised to propose amendments to the House bill, and Republicans on the Senate Education Committee have been outspoken in their opposition to the Senate bill.

"I know that there are numerous amendments out there," said Rep. Quentin Stanerson, R-Center Point, who sponsored the bill in the House. "One of the things that we're doing now is just looking at all those amendments and seeing which ones could possibly make the bill better and which ones we're not going to accept."

Branstad has made bullying prevention a priority this year after a failed effort during the 2013 session. Following some high-profile bullying incidents in Iowa, including the 2012 suicide of a 14-year-old boy in western Iowa who had been bullied, Branstad organized an anti-bullying summit. He held another such gathering last fall.

The bills now before lawmakers share four key policy components to curtail bullying: broadening the definition of bullying to include bullying on social networking sites; requiring parental notification in instances of bullying; granting school officials the authority to handle bullying incidences that occur off-campus if they affect students on school grounds; and training teachers and administrators on the best practices and procedures to respond to bullying cases.

Beyond those shared goals, the bills take different approaches to dealing with the problem.

The House bill adheres to Branstad's anti-bullying initiative, which emphasizes including parents and addressing cyberbullying. In his proposed budget for fiscal year 2015, the governor has included $25,000 to train school officials, and House lawmakers have not sought additional money to supplement these funds.

The House Education Committee approved the bill on a 19-4 vote, but lawmakers who opposed it expressed concern that $25,000 wasn't enough to pay for training.

"To think that you're going to train all educators for only $25,000 is really a disappointment for me to see," Rep. Cindy Winckler, D-Davenport, said before voting last month.

The Senate bill seeks $1 million for anti-bullying efforts, of which $250,000 would go toward establishing an office within the Department of Education to coordinate and implement the state's efforts to prevent bullying and harassment in schools. The office would also be charged with collecting and analyzing data reported from school districts.

The remainder of the money would be used for grants to schools needing help carrying out the new rules.

The Senate bill also doesn't require parental notification in all cases, leaving that decision to students and educators.

The bill passed the Senate Education Committee on a party-line vote.

Sen. David Johnson, R-Ocheyedan, called the bill a "complicated mess" and said it demands much more discussion, especially the proposal to create exceptions to parental notification. Parental notification should be a default, one that schools rarely stray from, he said.

"I believe what the Senate bill is trying to do does not address the core issues," he said.

The bill also needs more clarity about how to track, handle and distribute bullying data, Johnson said.

If the bill comes up for a vote on the Senate floor, Johnson said he'll offer a number of amendments.

"The bill is cumbersome, complicated and unworkable in a number of circumstances," he said.

Despite opposition from Republicans, Sen. Robert Hogg, D-Cedar Rapids, said he expects it will pass the Democratic-majority Senate.

Stanerson said he assumes that whatever measure passes in the House, some changes will be needed in order for a measure to clear both chambers.

"Will the House bill look exactly like it does now when it's all said and done? Probably not," Stanerson said. "There's probably going to be some compromises between the Senate and the House bill just so that we can have something that will help with the problem."

Legislative leaders in the House haven't said when they'll bring their bill up for a vote, but they stressed that the measure was a priority.

"We're working on that," said House Majority Leader Linda Upmeyer, R-Clear Lake. "We want to make sure we have the appropriate tools for schools, families, and parents to utilize when they're dealing with this very difficult issue."

The Senate bill, which was directed to the Senate Appropriations Committee after clearing the Education Committee, will be considered in subcommittee on Monday.

"Bullying is serious business," said Senate Majority Leader Michael Gronstal, D-Council Bluffs. "I am hopeful that we can take additional steps this year in a bipartisan fashion to better protect all Iowa children from bullying."

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