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Two Bills to Stop Bullying Introduced

March 22, 2006
By: David Castillo
State Capital Bureau
Links: HB 1502 & HB 1218

Jefferson City - Heather Clemens fields about 500 calls a year at the Missouri School Violence Hotline. A majority of those calls, she says, are made by parents reporting that their child has been bullied.

"All the incidents are very different but the large majority are to report bullying," said Clemens, whose hotline reports their information to schools and law enforcement authorities.

Bullying is a problem without borders. A search on the Internet will quickly yield world-wide resources for kids, parents and teachers interested in stopping bullies.

Familyfirstaid.org reports that 30 percent of American students in grades 6-10 have been bullied or are bullies themselves.

The problem has also caught the eye of lawmakers. Fifteen state legislatures have adopted laws to curb the problem in their schools and some Missouri lawmakers propose to make the Showme state next. Two legislators, Rep. Sarah Lampe, D-Springfield, and Rep. Will Kraus, R-Raytown, have introduced two separate bills to require school districts to have policies bullying.

"It's something we've overlooked for too long," Kraus said.

Both bills are similar in that they direct all school districts to adopt strict policies regarding bullying.

Each bill outlines minimum requirements for what these policies should include. They are also similar in that they attempt to describe what "bullying" means under this bill. It's their differences, however, that have some questioning the effectiveness of such legislation.

Kraus' bill would require school districts to develop a policy by Sept. 1, 2007. Bill provides that every policy should aim "to prevent harassment, intimidation, and bullying on school property, school buses, and at school functions." It also would require that policies include a list of consequences for students involved in breaking the policy.

What won't be found in Kraus' bill are what supporters of Lampe's bill call "enumerated categories."

These categories in Lampe's bill define bullying as any "written, oral, or physical act or gesture that is reasonably perceived as being motivated by an actual or perceived characteristic such as obesity, race, color, religion, national origin, ancestry, sex, sexual orientation, age, disability, familial status, or socioeconomic status...."

It's the exclusion of these categories that have split supporters of anti-bullying legislation. Kraus defends his bill, however, and says there is no need to include them.

"To me, bullying shouldn't happen in a special category," said Kraus, who has the support of the Missouri PTA. "What's right about that?"

Other groups voice concerns about the exclusion of such categories emphasizing the need for a definition of what bullying is and that it provide explicit protection for groups that are susceptible to bullying.

Personal Rights of Missouri, or PROMO, a gay and lesbian civil rights group says that enumerated categories are necessary.

"We think it's important to have a unified policy that would protect Missouri students," said Julie Brueggemann, PROMO Executive Director.

PROMO decided to pledge support for Lampe's legislation because of the enumerated categories. Lampe's bill has garnered the support of a broad coalition of groups including the ACLU, the Missouri National Education Association and the disability rights group Paraquad.

Lampe says that these categories are the key difference between the two bills and without them the legislation would be ineffective. School districts need help with this issue and her bill provides that help, Lampe says.

"Being specific helps school districts proceed with what they're going to do as to what bullying is," Lampe said. "It becomes more subjective if there is no definition."

Lampe likens her struggle to include categories to the sexual harassment debate and says that in the days when sexual harassment policies were being drafted it was imperative that they be specific.

She also says that there are legal implications to consider and that including categories protects teachers and administrators who might otherwise have to make judgment calls on how to proceed with bullies.

"If we don't define what we mean, then school personnel can be put in jeopardy," Lampe said. "The idea is to help them out and we've done that with this bill."

Part of the problem, says Lampe, is that most people think of bullying as fighting. According to a federal Health and Human Services' website, however, bullies engage in other practices like spreading rumors, ridiculing someone in public, or even bullying online. Most school districts have policies on fighting, but bullying is not necessarily fighting, says Lampe.

"Kids ought to be safe," Lampe said. "They shouldn't have to breathe asbestos and they shouldn't be bullied, either."

Some school districts are not waiting for legislation to come down from Jefferson City and have opted instead to write their own policy. Columbia Public Schools is one such district and is in the early stages of drafting a policy.

The language in the Columbia Public Schools policy has been largely taken from a policy that the Missouri School Boards Association (MSBA) has written. The policy is to include, among other things, bans on hazing. It will not include, however, any specific enumerated categories.

Dr. Lynn Barnett of Columbia Public Schools echoes Kraus' concerns about including categories saying that right now bullying can be described as harassment or assault, which is punishable.

"It doesn't matter what it's called," Barnett said. "We will not tolerate it."

The policy will include recommendations for how to handle those who do engage in bullying, but the state Education Board will approve the final policy.

Barnett, however, cited policies regarding discrimination that are currently on the books and says she is unsure whether the legislation, with or without enumerated categories, is necessary.

"To be honest, legislation probably won't have much of an effect," Barnett said.

That sentiment is similar to the views of the state School Board Association about the issue. According to Kelli Hopkins, the group's Education Policy director, her organization initially resisted writing an anti-bullying policy.

"We resisted a policy because everything in the policy is already against the rules," Hopkins said.

The association ultimately relented after constant requests from school districts that have recognized bullying as a problem. It started to look at policies from other states and school districts. The policy is taken from about 12-20 samples of other policy writing organizations like MSBA.

The association reports a membership of 280 school districts -- more than half of Missouri's school districts.

A large number of the association's members have decided to use the language for their own policies, said Hopkins, who also defended the exclusion of enumerated categories.

"We didn't think it was necessary," Hopkins said. "Much hazing is involved with a particular group or with a school rather than with who you are as an individual."

Hopkins also says that these categories, which she calls protected classes, are already included in anti-discrimination laws. Part of the problem, she says, is that there are a multitude of reasons for why kids could be bullied and not all those reasons fall under a protected class. The Association also cross-referenced much of the language from the anti-discrimination policy into its bullying policy.

"A bully could be picking on you because you're small," Hopkins said. "Small people aren't a protected class."

As things currently stand, a school district can use the Association policy and include enumerated categories as well. Rep. Kraus, however, aims to change that.

In a House education committee hearing, Kraus introduced a substitute amendment to his bill that would bar school districts from including enumerated categories in their own policy. His original bill did not specify that requirement.

"We should be discussing all children, not protecting certain segments," Kraus said.

Lampe, who commends Kraus for tackling this issue, was critical of this move.

"You can't advocate local control on the one hand and them slap them on the other when they try to use it," she said.

Neither Kraus' nor Lampe's bill has received a committee vote. Rep. Lampe's legislation has not even been scheduled for a hearing -- there are just seven weeks left in the legislative session.

Even if one of the bill's clears the House, which already has a backlog of other House bills approved by committee, it would face review by the Senate.