Iowa’s Safe Schools Law

Anti-Bullying & Anti-Harassment Act of 2007 (Iowa Safe Schools Law), Iowa Code 280.28:

On or before September 1, 2007, the local school boards of all Iowa school districts (public schools) and all accredited nonpublic schools (private elementary, middle schools and high schools) were to adopt a board policy on safe schools. The policy must include ALL of the following:

1.) A DEFINITION OF HARASSMENT & BULLYING

That definition must state substantially that harassment and bullying mean any electronic (this law also protects you from cyber-bullying which includes, but is not limited to, communication via email, internet-based communications, pager service, cell phones, and electronic text messaging), written, verbal, or physical act or conduct toward a student which is based on any actual or perceived trait or characteristic of the student and which creates an objectively hostile school environment that meets one or more of the following conditions:

• Places the student in reasonable fear of harm to the student’s person or property;
• Has a substantially detrimental effect on the student’s physical or mental health;
• Has the effect of substantially interfering with the student’s academic performance; or
• Has the effect of substantially interfering with the student’s ability to participate in or benefit from the services, activities, or privileges provided by a school.

2.) AN ANTI-HARASSMENT, ANTI-BULLYING STATEMENT

Schools must have a statement that no one shall engage in bullying and harassing behavior of students in school, on school property, or at any school function or school-sponsored activity (the Safe Schools Law protects you not just while you are on school property, but also when you are at any school function or school-sponsored activity—regardless of its location) with a description of the type of expected behavior from school employees, volunteers , parents or guardians and students when preventing, reporting and investigating harassment or bullying. The school must have written consequences and appropriate corrective action for a person who violates the anti-harassment and anti-bullying policy.

3.) A REPORTING PROCEDURE

Schools must have a procedure for reporting acts of bullying or harassment, including the name or job title of the school official responsible for receiving and investigating such reports. The law protects you from retaliation from others when you report harassment and bullying.

4.) AN INVESTIGATION PROCEDURE

Schools must have a clear procedure for prompt investigation of complaints.

5.) THE POLICY MUST STATE:

The policy must state that students will be protected from bullying and harassment based on any of the following traits or characteristics: age, color, creed, national origin, race, religion, marital status, sex, sexual orientation, gender identity, physical attributes, physical or mental ability or disability, ancestry, political party preference, political belief, socioeconomic status, and familial status. The school board may add to this list, but may not omit any of the listed traits from its local policy.

6.) THE POLICY MUST BE PUBLICIZED:

The policy must be publicized, and the school must have a statement of how the school’s anti-harassment and anti-bullying policy will be publicized. The most likely means of doing this will be in student handbooks, registration materials and periodic updates to communities.

7.) SCHOOLS OFFICIALS MUST REPORT ANNUALLY

School officials must annually report incidents of bullying and harassment, and discipline of bullies, to the Iowa Department of Education. This is information available to the public, both from the schools and from the Department of Education.

8.) SCHOOLS ARE ENCOURAGED TO PROVIDE:

• Programs Designed to Eliminate Harassment & Bullying in Schools
The law highly recommends that schools establish programs to eliminate harassment and bullying. These programs can include Gay-Straight Alliances, Diversity Clubs and other student groups whose aim is to make the school safe for all students—especially those that are historically marginalized.

• Training for Teachers and Staff
The law highly recommends that schools provide training for their teachers and other staff in recognizing and reacting appropriately to bullying and understanding the school’s anti-harassment and anti-bullying policy. If training cannot be provided (due to budget constraints), school officials must make sure that bus drivers, substitute teachers, volunteer coaches, support staff, etc., know about the school’s policy, how to help if a student needs to make a complaint, and how to react if they witness bullying or harassment.

• Training for Students
The law highly recommends that schools develop a process to educate their volunteers and students about how to combat bullying. School officials must make sure that students know about the school’s policy, how to make a complaint, and how to react if they witness bullying or harassment.

For more information on the law from the Iowa Department of Education, click here.

 

Why Should School Officials Obey the Law?

By Carol Greta, Attorney, Iowa Department of Education

First and most importantly, school officials need to comply with the new law because it’s the right thing to do.  The law has nothing to do with the personal beliefs of school board members or school officials, and has everything to do with making sure that Iowa’s children feel safe and respected, and are safe and respected, in their schools.  Bullying and harassment in the guise of “tradition” is still wrong, is still harmful, and in some cases, is a crime.[i]

Secondly, there’s the very real fact that school officials can be held legally responsible if they are “deliberately indifferent” to a student who is being harmed.  But note that the legal liability aspect of protecting students from bullying and harassment did not change with the passage of the new law.  School officials stand in as “substitute parents” (the legal term is in loco parentis) while children are in school;  therefore, school officials have always been expected to take reasonable steps calculated to end or ease the bullying or harassment when the officials know or should know of such incidents.  Obviously, when a complaint is made to a teacher or principal about an incident, the school is “on notice” and needs to act appropriately.  But what does “should know” look like?  Here’s an example:

At a private school in another state, a 1st grader was sexually abused by his teacher.  Over the next two years, the 1st grade teacher removed the student on a weekly basis from his 2nd and 3rd grade classes with no explanation and with the consent of those teachers!  These teachers should have known that something was amiss, and the court is allowing the parents’ lawsuit to proceed against the teachers personally for their failure to ask the simple question, “why do you keep taking my student out of my classroom?”[ii]

What does “deliberate indifference” look like?  The classic case comes from the United States Supreme Court.  A 5th grade girl was being groped and subjected to verbal sexual harassment by a classmate.  But every time she complained to the teacher, the teacher not only refused to do anything, the teacher forbade the girl to go to the office to talk to the principal about it.  This was not an isolated instance.  The harassment in this case went on for months.

Knowledge without action is not only useless, it’s a lawsuit waiting to be filed.

Even before the new law was passed, school officials were expected to protect a student from bullying and harassment based on the student’s real or perceived sexual orientation.  On the other hand, having sexual orientation mentioned in a school’s policy does not shield the school or its employees from responsibility if the policy is ignored.  One of the most egregious cases of deliberate indifference to a gay student who was repeatedly harassed, assaulted, and mock-raped in class occurred in a school district that had a board policy that pledged to protect students from harassment based on sexual orientation.[iii]

Cyberbullying[iv] is another form of bullying or harassment that is new to the law but for which school officials need to be vigilant and responsive.  If the cyberbullying takes place off school premises and does not create a substantial disruption to education or the school’s operations, the school may not be able to suspend or otherwise discipline the cyberbully.  But it is always appropriate for school officials to let the cyberbully – and his or her parents – know that the school is aware of his or her actions and to explore with law enforcement officials whether any crime has been committed.[v]

Finally, compliance with having the required policy in place is an accreditation matter.  The Iowa Department of Education has the responsibility of ensuring that all local school boards have passed the new policy.  School improvement consultants from the Department of Education will work diligently with schools to make sure that removal of accreditation does not occur.  However, failure to adopt the policy or failure to include required parts of the policy could subject the school district or nonpublic school run by the school board to removal of state accreditation.



[i] One subset of harassment is hazing.  Hazing is a crime in Iowa, regardless of the “willingness” of the target of the hazing to participate.

[ii] Doe v. Whitney, 779 N.Y.S.2d 570 (N.Y.A.D. 2 Dept. 2004).

[iii] Nabozny v. Podlesny, 92 F.3d 446 (7th Cir. 1996).  This case features as a defendant the middle school principal who asked the student, after he fled to her office from the mock rape with a broom handle, “Well, what did you expect if you’re going to be openly gay?”  The federal courts in Wisconsin awarded the student over $1M.

[iv] This includes text messaging, instant messaging, e-mail, threatening content on web sites, and any electronic means that targets a student for harassment.

[v] In Iowa, some instances of cyberbullying are covered in the criminal code.  School officials should consult their local county attorneys to see if a specific instance is a crime.