There's a very good reason almost every state in the nation has anti-bullying laws — and why Montana, the lone holdout, should have one too.
Bullying is a serious problem. It goes beyond the regular difficulties of childhood and can interfere with a student's education, safety and well-being. Every child in Montana has the right to pursue an education in a safe and secure environment, and bullying deprives them of that right.
Montana’s failure to address bullying is a travesty that must be corrected. Lawmakers have another opportunity to do so this session, thanks to House Bill 284, the "Bully-Free Montana Act," sponsored by Missoula Rep. Kimberly Dudik.
The bill had its first hearing before the House Education Committee last week, and drew testimony from supporters including victims of recent bullying. No one testified in opposition to the bill, but committee members still seemed lukewarm at best on the idea of passing an anti-bullying law.
HB 284 provides a definition of bullying that includes repeated "harassment, intimidation, hazing" or "threatening, insulting, or demeaning" acts or written communication. These acts would be considered bullying if they result in physical harm or reasonable fear of harm, create a hostile environment or disrupt school operations. The definition includes retaliation against those who report bullying behavior.
Further, the bill expressly prohibits bullying in Montana public schools and directs school districts to adopt anti-bullying policies. Many school districts, including Missoula County Public Schools, already have such policies in place.
Indeed, Montana schools were provided with a strong incentive to institute anti-bullying policies in July 2013, when a new statewide rule took effect. The Student Protections Procedures rule mandates that schools address bullying at all school properties and events, as well as online. However, the rule is limited to the state's Standards of Accreditation, meaning that schools violating this rule may receive, at most, a ding against their accreditation rating.
That potential slap on the wrist in no way reflects the very real importance of this issue.
Dudik's bill would strengthen school anti-bullying policies with the force of law. The parents of victims would be able to force schools to comply with anti-bullying policies.
Yet opponents of such legislation continue to argue, as they have in the past, that a statewide anti-bullying law would take away local control of schools. They fail to acknowledge that schools cannot enact law, and failing to provide legal protections for the victims of bullying puts our children at risk.
As explained by Julie Hertzog, director of PACER's National Bullying Prevention Center, in a Missoulian news story last week, legislation largely drives school policies and practices while setting standards to ensure consistencies among schools.
Again, every state in the nation except Montana has an anti-bullying law. In fact, many of them regularly update their laws to reflect rising awareness of related threats, such as cyberbullying.
Fortunately, Montana, too, has an opportunity to address the harm caused by cyberbullying, and to act to prevent it. House Bill 317, sponsored by another Missoula Democrat — Rep. Ellie Hill — defines "cyberbullying," prohibits the use of electronic technology to engage in bullying behavior, classifies it as a misdemeanor offense against minors and provides for appropriate penalties. It will see its first hearing with the House Judiciary Committee tomorrow.
Montanans will have no trouble supporting this pair of bills from Missoula lawmakers. All state legislators should join them, and help form a united front against bullying in Montana.