DES MOINES, Iowa — Efforts to reduce bullying in Iowa schools have been priorities for the last two legislative sessions, but lawmakers have again adjourned without approving a bill meant to help educators fight bullying.
Although Gov. Terry Branstad has held two statewide conferences to focus attention on school bullying and made the issue a key part of his legislative agenda, lawmakers have repeatedly struggled with the matter, even while acknowledging its importance.
In a statement released as the session was ending, Branstad promised to "continue to fight for our children because every student deserves a learning environment that is conducive to educational growth and free of harassment and bullying."
The problem is how to achieve those goals.
Bullying legislation came closer to passage this year than during the previous session, but it bogged down after the House approved a version that removed a Senate-backed provision meant to give school administrators more clarity about how they could respond to bullying that occurs away from school.
The Senate refused to take up the altered plan, determining that differences couldn't be resolved in the session's final days.
Rep. Quentin Stanerson, R-Center Point, said the House wouldn't support the bill unless those provisions were removed. Some lawmakers believed schools already have authority off school grounds, he said, and others thought bullying outside of school should be handled by police.
Sen. Rob Hogg, D-Cedar Rapids, said that aspect of the legislation was "the single most important thing to do."
"The problem is, the one thing that the students told me was most important, which is giving school administrators authority to address off-campus conduct that has an on-campus effect, the House didn't take that up in their version of the bill," Hogg said.
Hogg said the Senate and House also had disagreements on others aspects of the bill, including parental notification guidelines and training requirements for school officials. Both chambers had separately approved $500,000 in funding for implementation of bullying policies.
Mary Gannon, attorney for the Iowa Association of School Boards, said the biggest need was for training to implement new strategies on identifying bullying and intervening when necessary.
Joel Pedersen, superintendent of the Cardinal Community School District in Eldon, Iowa, said he's always intervened in situations occurring off school grounds if they disrupt activity at school and leave children feeling unsafe. However, he said it's difficult for school officials to know what action is appropriate without uniform guidelines.
"Without that legislation, there's still a lot of gray area ... and I think that was the goal of the legislation, to give administrators more support on their decisions," Pedersen said.
Branstad's focus on bullying followed some high-profile incidents in Iowa, including the 2012 suicide of a 14-year-old boy in western Iowa who had been bullied.
The governor's plan featured four key components: 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 cases off-campus if they affect students on school grounds; and training teachers and administrators on the best practices to respond to bullying.
Neighboring states have taken similar steps in an attempt to curtail bullying. In 2010, Illinois redefined bullying to include cyberbullying and later allowed for the suspension or expulsion of students for cyberbullying. Missouri made changes to its bullying law in 2010 to enhance the reporting requirements in bullying cases and include cyberbullying in the definition.
Hogg and Stanerson said lawmakers would return to the issue in coming years. They agreed Iowa needs new requirements, but said current law requiring schools to adopt policies prohibiting harassment and bullying offers some protection for children.
"There is room for improvement," he said. "There's no question about it."
Stanerson said he's hopeful the Legislature's inaction might compel schools to implement new policies and crack down on bullying themselves.
"I don't think there's anything legislatively that's holding them up from being more proactive on anti-bullying policies," he said.