What began as a running conversation between Bruce Braley and his wife, and a series of comments from students at a meeting with Tom Harkin, may end up as the first-ever federal law to combat bullying in schools.
Braley, the Democratic representative of Iowa’s First District, and Harkin, the retiring Senate Democrat, introduced a bill last week in both chambers that grew out of discussions between Braley and his wife, Carolyn, a teacher at Waterloo West High School in Waterloo.
Teachers are being pressed into ever-expanding duty in the classroom that takes them away from their primary teaching roles, Braley learned, and into that gap, opportunities for bullying emerge that create discord and damage students’ emotional health.
“Conditions have changed dramatically since I was in high school,” Braley said. “Today’s teachers face much more management issues in the classroom in addition to helping students learn. … And positive modeling from parents is lacking. It would be ideal if we lived in a society where every parent took on that and handled it in a positive way and we didn’t have these problems to cope with. But the harsh reality is that Iowa teachers are spending far more time in classroom management than they used to when these problems were not as pronounced.”
Harkin comes at the issue from a different perspective. He recalled an anti-bulllying hearing in Iowa last summer where he heard “gripping” testimony from students who said they had been bullied. Harkin chairs the Senate Education Committee and is using his committee to promote the cause.
“Their words stuck with me,” Harkin said. “This bill … will help ensure that all students, regardless of gender identity or sexual orientation, are treated fairly and afforded equal opportunities to succeed in the classroom. The legislation aims to reduce future bullying cases by gathering data on the incidence and prevalence of violence, including harassment and bullying, and uses that information to implement evidence-based programs to ensure our kids have a safe and healthy school environment.”
There are no anti-bullying federal laws, but in some cases bullying can overlap with discrimination and harassment that is prohibited under federal civil rights laws. Also, several states have passed a variety of anti-bullying measures in recent years, particularly as the growth of social media has created more cases of cyber-bulling and reports of suicides among some teenagers. Some states have passed outright laws against bullying, while others have sought to define it and others have delegated authority to local school districts. Others have established statewide reporting procedures and provided for more information collection about cases.
The issue has received heightened attention in Iowa — Republican Gov. Terry Branstad is holding his second-annual anti-bullying summit in November.
Applying to K-12 public schools, the Braley/Harkin bill — dubbed The Successful, Safe and Healthy Students Act — would establish two grant programs aimed at providing more resources to schools. The first would provide funds for states to distribute to school districts to improve learning conditions, increase opportunities for physical activity and nutrition learning, prevent drug use and violence and promote mental health.
The second grant program would give states money to give to local school districts to develop and improve data systems that can enhance their learning environments.
Republican response to the bill is muted so far, with Congress still swept up in fallout from last week’s Navy Yard shootings and ongoing wrangling over a government shutdown, President Barack Obama’s health care law and the federal debt ceiling.
But one clue may be the response of Sen. Chuck Grassley, R-Iowa, who said he would scrutinize the bill to ensure it does not establish a federal law or policy about bullying.
“If it makes money available to schools to discourage bullying without any policy established at the federal level, then it might be doable. But if it’s any more than that, I want to reserve judgment,” Grassley said.
Yet some Democrats say a federal law is exactly what’s needed.
“These laws in the states lack consistency and enforcement mechanisms,” Sen. Bill Nelson, D-Fla., said in a floor speech last week.
Braley, who is running for Harkin’s seat in the Nov. 2014 elections, has worked with Harkin several times on legislation, most notably in a 2008 bill — Braley’s first — that provided training grants to Iowa community colleges for renewable energy industry jobs. In 2010, the pair combined to pass the Healthy Food Choices for Kids Act, which established nutrition information labels in school cafeterias and promote more nutrition awareness.
This year, they worked together to introduce the Rebuild American Manufacturing Act, intended to create a national manufacturing strategy that rebuilds the manufacturing industry and creates more such jobs in Iowa.