Iowa View: Offer training for addressing harassment in schools

Alex Libby
Written by RYAN ROEMERMAN and VERONICA LORSON FOWLER

View The Des Moines Register Article here.

 The tragic suicide of Kenneth Weishuhn in Primghar and the spotlight on a Sioux City student in the documentary “Bully” have brought bullying and the harm it causes to our attention once again.

Iowa has an important tool in place to prevent such awful occurrences, but it has yet to fully use that tool: The 2007 Safe Schools Law. It protects students from everything ranging from verbal abuse to cyberbullying to kicking and punching. In fact, bullying really is a misnomer. Let’s call it what it is: harassment and sometimes even flat-out physical assault.

But laws are just words on paper, and not always followed — especially if the law, like this one, is an unfunded mandate. Over the past five years, we have seen widely varying degrees of implementation by schools.

Reporting of harassment, as required by law, is spotty, with some districts reporting no incidents of harassment at all for the entire school year. Yet in the most recent Iowa Youth Survey, conducted by the Iowa Department of Public Health, half the students across Iowa reported being bullied; 34 percent were verbally harassed and 14 percent — nearly one in seven — reported being physically assaulted.

Schools are eager to reduce harassment and need guidance to better understand what harassment actually is (which is spelled out in the law), how to prevent harassment, and how to investigate complaints when harassment occurs.

A key element of the law would remedy this by having within each district or school a designated and trained “investigator,” someone who has been trained in dealing with students who harass and those that are targeted.

This person would know how to most effectively identify and investigate complaints of harassment that take place in the school, on the buses, off school grounds or online. This person would be trained to address complaints effectively so students can focus on learning. But the law provides no funding for this critical training.

The cost is small and practical — salary and expenses for one person to do investigation trainings for schools across the state. Yet this one person could make a huge difference providing critical information on the law and helping administrators use the law as a tool for creating safe schools.

Let’s look at it this way: In the workplace, no adult would tolerate a co-worker who came up and pushed him into the wall or sent hateful emails at night. And definitely no one would tolerate another worker who punched a co-worker by the bus stop on the way home from work.

Why should it be any different for our young people? We each need to do our part. We encourage parents and educators to review the Safe Schools law. We encourage schools to consider taking part in the Safe School Certification Program to ensure that they are in compliance (www.safeschoolcertification.org). And in the next legislative session, we encourage lawmakers to fund a trainer who can provide support to investigators across Iowa.