Legislative Update 3/18 [updated]

Update: Huffington Post reports that twenty high school students were suspended for retweeting gossip about a high school teacher. Is this where we are headed in Iowa? Do we want students to lose days of instructional time as punishment for off-campus speech? What other tweets about teachers or administrators could be punished under a policy like this?

Last Friday was the second funnel deadline. The House Democrats and House Republicans have produced two slightly different lists of education bills that survived the second funnel.

Both of the anti-bullying bills, HF 2409 and SF 2318, survived the funnel.

SF 2318, as amended by S-5060 [adopted by voice vote] and S-5073 [adopted by voice vote], passed [26-19] in the Senate today. S-5060, described during debate as “largely technical,” made a number of changes, including changing the requirement that training be incorporated into individual teacher and administrator professional development plans to school district or attendance center professional development plans, changing “research-based” to “research- and outcome-based”, and changing “safety and security” to strike “and security”. S-5060 also removed the 3.0 additional F.T.E. in the DE and grants the DE emergency rule-making authority to implement the new sections 256.100 Office of support and analysis for safe schools and 256.101 School climate improvement grant program. S-5073 creates an exemption to the varsity interscholastic athletic contest and competition ineligibility for students open enrolling into another district during the first ninety days of enrollment if the resident district determines that the student was subject to a founded incident of bullying or harassment as defined in 280.28 while attending school in the resident district.

Three other attempts to amend the bill failed. S-5074 [22-25] on quick inspection appears to be a strike and replace amendment to insert the language of the House bill. S-5075 and S-5076 [both ruled out of order] would have added training on free speech to training requirements. These two amendments were determined to be “unduly broad.”

Video of the Senate debate on Monday and Tuesday of this bill is available at the Iowa Legislature website.

Lobbyists for StudentsFirst and the Urban Education Network of Iowa are registered for the Senate bill, ACLU-IA is registered against (read about their concerns here), with ISEA, IASB, SAI, DE, and the AEAs registered as undecided.

The debate isn’t overly long, and had some interesting moments.

One concern with anti-bullying bills is that the definition of bullying can become overly broad. Consider the apparent definition of cyberbullying or online bullying from an article in today’s Globe and Mail, Teachers are low on the list students turn to when cyberbullied (H/T @SheilaSpeaking): “said or done something mean or cruel to someone online” or “that someone has said or done something mean or cruel to them online that made them feel badly.”

Sen. Hogg (D-Linn) recognized this over-broadness issue at one point, stating “lots of bad behavior isn’t bullying or harassment.” Unfortunately, there doesn’t seem to be a recognition that some bad behavior–mean, hurtful, or offensive speech–may, nonetheless, be constitutionally-protected. This is particularly concerning with regard to the expansion of school authority off school grounds; there are some permissible limitations on student speech at school, but it doesn’t follow that those same limitations can properly be placed on student speech away from school.

It is nice to think that everyone understands and respects the First Amendment implications and limitations in policing speech, but discussion around a local school board’s proposed public comment policy (see, for example, Chris’s post here) suggests this isn’t the case.

In arguing against an amendment that would have made investigation of alleged incidents of bullying or harassment occurring off school grounds discretionary, Sen. Hogg argued that granting immunity for failure to act created the wrong incentive, and stated something along the lines that the bill is giving them the tools, and expects them to act.

Missing from the debate were concerns that the bill might encourage school surveillance of student social media use or recognition that students can take steps–without school administrator involvement–to protect themselves on social media (see, for example, Twitter’s online abuse page and suggestions for helping targets of online abuse). In addition, schools can educate students about bullying issues and prevention without having expanded authority to investigate and discipline students for off-campus incidents.

Interestingly, as Iowa moves to make the DE and schools primarily responsible for bullying prevention and response efforts, the Globe and Mail reports that:

[The study] found that teachers are far down the list of people that students consider turning to for help when faced with online harassment. Parents come first, followed by other trusted adults and friends. In some cases, students said they would rather talk face to face with their own bullies, or simply ignore the problem and hope it resolves itself, than ask teachers to get involved. The researchers believe that highly punitive school policies are a factor.

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