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Branstad backs ‘strengthening’ anti-bullying laws

BY BRENT GRIFFITHS | DECEMBER 04, 2012 6:30 AM

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Gov. Terry Branstad on Monday said he supports tougher anti-bullying laws, and state proponents differ in their opinions of what actions the government should actually take.

“[Measures] can be taken to strengthen and improve our law,” the governor said at his weekly press conference.

Branstad spokesman Tim Albrecht said the governor would not consider specifics until the next legislative session begins.

This vow to toughen laws comes on the heels of a state conference last week that focused on bullying in the state.

However, one of the conference panelists cautioned against making changes to the law, saying he would be “concerned” with any move to further criminalize bullying.

“I think Iowa’s law is one of the more balanced and well thought out laws already, and it would be a shame to ruin that,” said Frank LoMonte, an attorney and the executive director of the  Student Press Law Center.

The current law, which went into effect in 2007, required public school boards and private accredited schools to have an anti-bullying/anti-harassment policy. The policy further required schools to come up with a method to report and investigate issues and train staff and volunteers if possible.

LoMonte spoke during Bullying Prevention Summit  on a panel about legal aspects of bullying laws. He said his biggest concern would be criminalizing off-campus online activity, and he believes the “right track” for the legislation would be a focus on educating students about the issue.

“I don’t know if the solution is to throw more laws at it,” he said.

Some say one possible weak point of the state’s current bullying law is its definition of electronic communication.

An Iowa City School District official said a possible change to the state law could be clarifying the definition of “electronic.” The district believes this means texting, web-based, and social media.

Adding the definition will require effort from everyone involved, he said.

“How we continue to respond to the problem is the School District, parents, and students [working together],” said Ross Wilburn, director of equity for the district.

The severity of the punishment for bullying incidents can include expulsion, Wilburn said, but LoMonte said he prefers alternatives that do not suspended or expel students. One of these is a student court, which allows students to try to resolve conflicts without affecting someone’s permanent record.

“One of the exciting alternatives we’re seeing around the country is student courts,” LoMonte said, noting that this solution involves students dealing with the issue together and trying to resolve conflicts without significant punishment.

Staci Hupp, the director of communication for the Iowa Department of Education, said officials are “taking time to reflect” on the summit, but it “helped Iowans get engaged in the issue of bullying.”

The summit allowed attendees to look at the challenges of the problem, she said.

One area in which LoMonte agrees a law should address the problem is in “extreme circumstances,” which could apply to an eastern Iowa high-school bullying incident involving a wrestler.

That particular case, as reported by the Cedar Rapids Gazette, occurred when a Lisbon High School wrestler was found guilty of harassment in July for bullying a 15-year-old wrestler. Austin Edwards was found guilty of third-degree harassment after he held down the accuser’s face and placed his exposed genitalia on it, the Gazette reported.

Branstad said at the conference he is “hopeful we’ll have some specific suggestions” from the next session of the Legislature, which will begin Jan. 14, 2013.


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