Locals support proposed state-wide bullying hotline

BY DORA GROTE | APRIL 27, 2012 6:30 AM

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Mental-health advocates support a local legislator's move to expand crisis services into a statewide bullying-specific hotline.

Rep. Mary Mascher, D-Iowa City, proposed the hotline last week in the Legislature, partially in reaction to the suicide of Iowa student Kenneth Weishum Jr., who was allegedly bullied for being gay.

"If a young person feels motivated enough to contact a crisis hotline, we need to make sure the support network is there," said Mascher, who proposed the initiative along with Rep. Beth Wessel-Kroeschell, D-Ames. "Whatever media they need — texting, online chat, or social media — we need to provide that."

Local crisis officials say the hotline would expand the Johnson County Crisis Center's efforts to combat bullying.

The Crisis Center provides a 24-hour crisis hotline and CrisisChat.org — available noon to midnight — on which individuals can contact a professional through online chat.

"I think one of the greatest resources statewide would be the Crisis Center's, but at this point, it's only available [noon to midnight] and expanding the existing program would provide an even greater resource," said Ross Wilburn, the equity director for the Iowa City School District.

Beth Ruback, communications and development director of the Crisis Center, said the center provides a great resource, but a statewide bullying initiative would give aid better-tailored to young people's needs.

"I think young people are more likely to search for support around a specific topic — bullying, an eating disorder, substance abuse, etc. — and might not think to call a 'crisis hotline,' " Ruback said.

She also collaborated with Mascher in developing the proposed hotline's online components.

"It provides a shield for young people to reveal a problem and tell us they're in a crisis," Ruback said. "Telling someone is often the most difficult thing. It's a great way for them to do it without any confrontation."

The Crisis Center received 1,496 CrisisChat.org requests from January to March this year — 409 in March alone.

"Unfortunately that far exceeds our capacity to respond," Ruback said. "The demand of that service is much higher than anyone anticipated. We're working hard to train more volunteers to answer."

Of the 1,496 requests, the Crisis Center staff could only respond to 497.

Mascher also said the potential statewide anti-bullying hotline could also face difficulties finding a large enough staff.

"Right now, we don't have a statewide system in place, and part of the problem is we don't have enough people to staff the hotline," Mascher said. "It's a real challenge, and we're trying to reach out and establish a program."

Schools have also sought to develop anti-bullying initiatives. Ryan Roemerman, executive director of the Iowa Pride Network, said schools can now apply for a Safe School Certification program once they have met all of the requirements of the Iowa Safe Schools Law — an anti-bullying act developed in 2007.

"We know that it really takes looking at a school in its entirety," Roemerman said. "It's not just one time and not just an assembly — that does not make your school safe. It takes an entire school effort and an in-depth program that really makes a school safe school over time."

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