Bully Free Iowa Act of 2015 [updated]

The Gazette reports today that Branstad, lawmakers seek to close gap on anti-bullying bill and that there were two sticking points to pass an anti-bullying bill last year: parent notification provisions and funding.

The 2015 bill (HSB 39), as proposed by the Governor, is three pages longer than his 2014 proposal (HSB 525). Below is a description of the provisions of the 2015 bill, with comparisons to 2014 anti-bullying bills (HSB 525 as proposed by the Governor, HF 2409, and SF2318).


Subject to appropriations of funds, the director of the DE would be required to ensure that each school district has adequate training on conducting investigations of complaints of incidents of harassment or bullying by offering such training on an annual basis to at least one employee per district.

This is a change from the approach in HSB 525, which would have created an annual notification requirement by the DE to school districts and accredited nonpublic schools about the availability of training  and teacher license application or renewal rules requiring the completion of specified training, to the extent that training is made available by the state at no charge to the trainee.

Pilot Program

Subject to appropriations, the DE would be required to establish a student mentoring pilot program to explore how student leadership can help prevent bullying and violence in schools. The program shall promote best practices for bullying and violence prevention for middle and high school students. The pilot program shall be established in at least two middle schools and two high schools.

This is a new provision that was not included in HSB 525.


The definition of “electronic” in 280.28(2)(a) would be expanded to include social networking sites “or any other electronic communication site, device, or means.” The definition of “trait or characteristic of the student” in 280.28(2)(c) would be expanded to include “behavior, friendship or relationship with others, or any other distinguishing characteristic” and  a direction is added to construe this paragraph broadly to achieve the purposes of this section (prohibiting harassment and bullying).

These modifications to the definitions of “electronic” and “trait or characteristic of the student” are identical to those proposed in HSB 525.

Parent Notification

School district anti-harassment and anti-bullying policy is required to include a provision for prompt notifications of the parents or guardians of all students directly involved in a reported incident of harassment of bullying. The procedure shall include an exception to the notification requirement if a school official or a student who is the target of harassment or bullying reasonably believes notification would subject the targeted student to rejection, abuse, or neglect related to actual or perceived sexual orientation, gender identity, or gender expression.

This proposal is similar to the parent notification proposed in HSB 525. The exception is broadened by inclusion of the targeted student’s reasonable belief that notification would cause them harm and by the addition of rejection as a potential harm that would justify the decision not to notify the parents. However, it seems to narrow the exception in two ways. First, the exception is limited to targeted students and not other student participants who may also face rejection, abuse, or neglect if parents are notified of their behavior. Second, it seems that the exception is limited to students who may be rejected, abused, or neglected related to actual or perceived sexual orientation, gender identity, or gender expression rather than just for any reason at all related to the notification.

SF  2318 would have delayed notification until after investigation and determination that harassment or bullying has occurred (rather than reported) but included the student in creation of the notification plan. The notification exception would apply if a school official reasonably believes notification would subject a student to abuse, neglect, or other physical or mental harm.

Authority Off School Grounds

A school official may investigate and impose school discipline or take other action in the case of an alleged incident of harassment or bullying that occurs outside of school, off of school property, or away from a school function or school-sponsored activity if 1) the incident is reported by a parent, guardian, student, school employee, or volunteer and 2) the alleged incident has an effect on school grounds that creates an objectively hostile school environment that meets one of more of the conditions set out in 280.28(2)(b). [Question: does school employee reporting open the door for schools to employ people for the purpose of, or assign employees to the duty of, surveillance of student social media use? Should it be limited to school employees who have had incidents reported to them by students, parents, or guardians?]

This language is identical to the proposed language in HSB 525.

Athletic Eligibility

Open enrollment high school students are typically ineligible to participate in varsity athletics during the first ninety school days of enrollment. An exception would be added for open enrollment students if the district of residence determines that the student was previously subject to a founded incident of harassment or bullying as defined in 280.28 while attending school in the district of residence and both the district of residence and the district of enrollment agree to allow the student to participate immediately in varsity athletics. [Question: if there is a founded incident of harassment or bullying, why should the district of residence be permitted to block athletic eligibility?]

This is a new provision that was not included in HSB 525. SF 2318 contained a similar athletic eligibility provision that would have required only the founded incident, but not agreement of both districts.


Appropriates $150,000 for training programs and $50,000 for the pilot program.

HSB 525 contained no appropriations, SF 2318 would have appropriate $250,000 to establish the office of support and analysis for safe schools, $150,000 of which would have been earmarked for providing training, and $750,000 for a school climate improvement grant program.

In his condition of the state address, the Governor said, “Together we can make 2015 the year Iowa acted to protect our children and grandchildren by ending bullying in schools.” The reality is that passing a bill is not going to end bullying in schools and passage of a bill is not required to empower any of us to model respectful and kind behavior or to talk to our children or our students about respectful and kind behavior. We would do well to remember that.

Update: here’s another take on the bill at Bleeding Heartland and a DE report on anti-bullying programming and projected expenditures for different levels of support (HT: Bleeding Heartland).

3 thoughts on “Bully Free Iowa Act of 2015 [updated]

  1. Chris Liebig

    Everybody wants less bullying in schools, but this bill is way too broadly worded. The bill defines “bullying” so broadly that it would be impossible for students to know in advance whether they’re engaging in it. Adding “any other distinguishing characteristic” to the definition of “trait or characteristic” renders the definition meaningless. Basically, you can’t say anything about another person if there’s a chance that someone will later decide that you’ve created a hostile school environment and interfered with the student’s “ability to benefit” from school—both of which are completely undefined and unconstrained.

    Can a student disagree strongly with another student’s political opinion (in class, or in a student newspaper, or on a Facebook page)? If one student tries to persuade others to disagree with another student’s political opinions, at what point is that creating a hostile environment? Only when it’s successful? For example, what if one student calls another student’s opinions “racist”? Is that now out of bounds, regardless of whether it may be true?

    I wouldn’t want to live in a world where the state had this kind of authority over adults. Punishing all speech that “created a hostile environment” for someone else would blatantly violate the First Amendment. Why should different rules apply to high school students?

    The solution to bullying isn’t to deprive students of the kind of freedoms (of speech and association) that they will have as soon as they become adults. More thoughts here.

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