About 15 minutes into his opening speech, Sioux City Superintendent Paul Gausman spoke the word that became the underlying theme of the statewide bullying prevention summit.
“Be an upstander, not a bystander,” Gausman said.
An upstander, he said, is a person who stands up for what they believe and who stands up for others. It’s a message Gausman’s been trying to sell roughly 14,000 students ever since his district was featured in the documentary “Bully.”
Gausman opened the day-long summit that officials say brought more than 1,100 people to Hy-Vee Hall in downtown Des Moines Tuesday with a story of the district’s response, including a partnership with the Waitt Institute for the Prevention of Violence and the establishment of the MVP (Mentors in Violence Prevention) program.
Throughout the day, speakers and panelists covered topics ranging from cyber bullying and culture in the classroom to the legal limitations of trying to prosecute bullies as the state looks, once again, at how best to stop bullying.
Although they didn’t all use Gausman’s phrase, the sentiment was in many of their messages.
Keynote speaker Rosalind Wiseman, the author of the book “Queen Bees and Wannabes,” told teachers they need to stand up to students and tell them bullying behavior is not tolerated.
“You don’t need documentaries and expensive bullying programs to tell students, ‘That’s not happening in my classroom,’” she said.
Author and activist Barbara Coloroso expressed the same sentiment with three rules she said all people should follow: “Pay attention. Get involved. Never look away.”
It was a message that was expressed over and over again in videos that played during the conference during the different presentations. One particularly poignant one from the Waukee School District began with hurtful messages students at the school had sent about each other and ended with a montage of the children themselves imploring each other to treat one another with kindness.
Still, it remains to be seen if the summit will result in any amendment to the state’s anti-bullying statute. The statute was considered one of the better ones in the country when it was passed in 2007, but it does not specifically cover cyber bullying (it does cover electronic bullying) as some experts say strong anti-bullying statutes do.
Gov. Terry Branstad, who attended the full day of the conference, said he was open to potential changes.
“Yes, I think there are some things we can do. At this point, we’re still trying to gather data and information,” he said. “You’ve got to be really careful because free speech is protected by the First Amendment to the United States Constitution. People have a right to express their opinion, but they don’t have a right to threaten other people.”
Branstad said he hoped to have something more concrete by the start of the legislative session in January.