A new anti-bullying proposal that explicitly extends school authority beyond the classroom sailed out of a House committee Tuesday.
The legislation, House Study Bill 196, also gives school officials an out if they don’t do anything about alleged bullying beyond a “good faith effort” to follow the law.
The law gives administrators and teachers the authority to follow up on incidents that occur off school grounds but doesn’t require them to do so.
Rep. Frank Wood, D-Eldridge, who is an assistant principal at North Scott High School in Eldridge and a member of the subcommittee, said his district encourages teachers and staff to report bullying. If employees aren’t comfortable dealing with the situation, administrators still encourage them to pass information along to supervisors, who will follow up on the report.
He said the bill’s impact would be minimal if it becomes law.
“It doesn’t affect me at all,” Wood said. “It’s basically the same thing, it’s not going to affect what we’re doing right now. The biggest thing is, we’re going to have to go out and do professional development and make sure our teachers understand what bullying and harassment are.”
Tuesday’s subcommittee was the first stop for the legislation, which was drafted by the School Administrators of Iowa and reviewed by officials in Gov. Terry Branstad’s office. It’s a follow-up from last fall’s anti-bullying summit in Des Moines.
The summit followed the suicide of Kenneth Weishuhn of South O’Brien High School, who was bullied after coming out as gay to his friends, and release of the documentary film “Bully” shot, in part, in the Sioux City Community School District.
Matt Carver, legal services director for the School Administrators of Iowa, said the idea was make sure “all are protected from bullying, regardless of time or location.”
The bill explicitly includes the term social media to cover Facebook, Twitter and other social networking sites. The current state statute prohibits bullying by “electronic” means.
Education lobbyists and others are concerned about one part of the bill that says the law is in no way meant to restrain what a “reasonable person” would consider political, religious and other types of speech protected by the U.S. Constitution.
“If I use my religion as an excuse for that, that is not religious freedom, that is not free speech. And how do you define a reasonable person?” said Connie Ryan Terrell, executive director of the Interfaith Alliance of Iowa. “Obviously, we stand for religious freedom, but it can never be used for bullying and harassment.”
Subcommittee chair Josh Byrnes, R-Osage, said he was open to amending the bill before it goes to a full committee on Wednesday.
“We really do need parents’ help in this, we really do,” Byrnes said.