Legislators could see bullying bill this session
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Legislators could see bullying bill this session

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Since 1999, 46 states have passed a total of 120 laws regulating bullying.

Not one of those was passed in South Dakota.

A new report from the U.S. Department of Education identified South Dakota as the only state in the country that doesn't have either legislation or statewide policy dealing with bullying, an increasingly prominent issue.

It is a state of affairs that might not change soon. Many politicians and officials say they prefer letting local school districts take the lead in addressing bullying and most school districts have done so.

"I'll take the lead from the superintendents in our district - they're already doing it," said Sen. Tom Nelson, R-Lead. "They have rules, (regulations) and policies already in place. What they don't want is the state telling them how to do it."

Many school districts didn't have these policies in 2009, when a bill was introduced in the Legislature to require them to create bullying policies. The bill went down to defeat but may have had an effect anyway.

"The first year we did the legislation, it sparked a lot of movement by the school districts, and I have to commend them," said Sen. Dan Lederman, R-Dakota Dunes, who has supported several bullying-related laws over the years.

The Rapid City Area Schools is one of the districts with a bullying policy. Bullying is included as a prohibited behavior in the district's harassment and discrimination policy. The district also provides anti-bullying education through its Character Counts initiative.

Superintendent Tim Mitchell said the district takes bullying very seriously.

"We want to provide each and every day that safe and secure environment for students," Mitchell said. "That is part policy. That is part discipline and consequences. It's part education. We need to have a comprehensive approach."

But some districts in the state don't have bullying policies. Others may not have policies that meet what experts recommend in an ideal policy.

"Some of the policies... really were simply saying ‘we don't like bullying,' but they don't define it," said Sen. Stan Adelstein, R-Rapid City.

That is part of what keeps some lawmakers trying to pass a statewide bullying law.

A bill proposed in 2011 would have required every school district to adopt a bullying policy. The specifics of that policy would have been left up to the districts, as long as it met minimum standards: a definition of bullying, listed consequences, and procedures for reporting and investigating bullying.

That bill was defeated 4-3 in a Senate committee.

Rep. Jacqueline Sly, R-Rapid City, was the bill's prime sponsor in the House.

"One of the things I've been told is that many school districts want to have things at the local level," Sly said. "That's why ... there were guidelines that had to be included, but it wasn't one policy that everyone had to follow."

As a school administrator, Mitchell said he would prefer schools to be left alone to set their policies. When a policy comes from the grassroots rather than a mandate, Mitchell said, there tends to be more community buy-in.

But he said he has come around to accepting a minimal law requiring districts to have a policy.

"I could accept legislation that mandates that you have anti-discrimination, harassment and bullying policies, and sets - based on a research-based standard - what are the major standards," Mitchell said. "I don't think we're afraid of that accountability of having minimum standards. Just don't write a statewide policy and have everyone adopt it."

Sen. Stan Adelstein has led efforts to fight bullying laws in past and plans to bring more legislation next year.

Adelstein said his bill next year will still leave most details up to individual school districts. But he might single out groups particularly likely to be bullied, like the handicapped or gay and lesbians. Last year's bill lacked references to specific groups.

Gov. Dennis Daugaard isn't a big fan of laws requiring bullying policies, his spokesman Tony Venhuizen said.

"Our position was, that is something it seemed like could be addressed at a local level," Venhuizen said. "It's an issue that we'll continue to look at as we go into session, and we'll consider ideas and bills that continue to come in."

Several local lawmakers are lukewarm about adding a law.

"It's sometimes easy for legislators to get caught up in that tsunami and say, ‘Every state's doing it,'" said Rep. David Lust, R-Rapid City.

Lust, the House majority leader, said he's skeptical whether passing a bullying law would be "effective policy-making."

"I would hate for people to misconstrue the legislators' failure to enact a bullying statute as an insensitivity to the problem of bullying," he said.

Rep. Lance Russell, R-Hot Springs, worried that a state bullying law might open school districts up to lawsuits by bullying victims.

"Although (bullying) exists, it can be dealt with appropriately under the current set of statutes," Russell said.

Statewide educators have cautious positions on bullying laws.

The Associated School Boards of South Dakota supports bullying laws as long as they don't dictate specifics to school boards. On their website, www.asbsd.org, the group also posts a model bullying policy similar to the 2011 bullying bill: It defines bullying and instructs the school superintendent to develop regulations setting out procedures to address bullying, consequences for it and educational programs to prevent it.

A recent survey of 143 superintendents around the state conducted by the South Dakota School Superintendents Association found administrators divided on the issue. A plurality, 37.8 percent, opposes a state bullying law. But a majority say they have no serious objections to such a law, with 33.6 percent in full support and 27.3 percent not supporting a bullying law but saying they wouldn't oppose one, either.

The state Department of Education views bullying as a local issue, Secretary of Education Melody Schopp said.

"We have talked about doing a model (bullying) policy," Schopp said.

But the department noted that it does not do model policies in other areas and decided not to proceed.

"That's more a function of local school boards to do that," Schopp said.

Mitchell said that policies and laws can help combat bullying but are never enough on their own.

"What is the magic as to getting rid of bullying?" he asked. "Is it legislation? Or is it everyone in our communities standing up and saying, ‘These behaviors are unacceptable. We're not going to allow people to bully.'"

Contact David Montgomery at 394-8329 or david.montgomery@rapidcityjournal.com

 

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