Ray Carter | March 11, 2020

Anti-bullying measure advances, but aid for victims remains sidelined

Ray Carter

Legislation requiring public schools to take more seriously reports of bullying has gained easy passage in the Oklahoma Senate. But even as lawmakers decry the growing problem of school bullying, efforts to increase the options available to victims of bullying remain sidelined at the Capitol.

Senate Bill 1133, by Sen. Ron Sharp, amends the state’s School Safety and Bullying Prevention Act to force school officials to act quickly to reports of bullying and do so in a transparent way.

“It is the best we can do to address a very serious situation that’s occurring in our school districts,” said Sharp, a Shawnee Republican and former teacher.

Sharp said the legislation aligns Oklahoma’s statutory definition of bullying with national standards, provides protection for those who report bullying incidents, boosts transparency, and encourages immediate parental notification.

SB 1133 modifies the definition of “bullying” in the state’s School Safety and Bullying Prevention Act to include behavior that involves a power imbalance and is repeated or highly likely to be repeated. It requires school districts to update discipline and bullying policies annually and allows a student, school employee, school volunteer, or parent to report an act of bullying. The legislation also requires that anonymous reports be investigated in the same manner as other reports.

The proposed law would require that notification be provided to the parents of both a reported victim and a reported perpetrator of bullying within 24 hours, and immediate notification is required in instances in which a student expresses suicidal thoughts or encourages another student to commit suicide.

Protections against retaliation are included for school employees who notify a district or the State Department of Education of noncompliance with a discipline and bullying policy.

Schools would also be required to provide a report on incidents of bullying to the district board of education at least once each semester at a public meeting.

Several lawmakers noted the bullying issue is a growing problem in Oklahoma schools.

Sen. Adam Pugh, R-Edmond, said a constituent “brought over 100 moms to a meeting that I had in my district and talked about this issue.”

He said many constituents “believe that Edmond Public Schools does a great job of teaching kids,” but that’s not enough.

“When you drop your kid off for eight hours a day and they walk into any building, whether it be a school building or anywhere they go, that if you don’t think they are safe it doesn’t matter what they are going to learn,” Pugh said.

Sen. Mary Boren, a Norman Democrat who previously worked as a school counselor, said bullying is broader than physical intimidation.

“I always thought of bullying as being just a physical thing that you do to somebody, where you hurt them and you get away with it,” Boren said. “But what we know now is that there is a tiered social power within schools. We have the cool kids and we have the not-cool kids, and we have people who misuse their influence over kids in social settings, which carries over into social media.”

Sen. Gary Stanislawski, R-Tulsa, noted that nearly 40 percent of students who attend online charter schools report being bullied at their prior school district.

“If a child doesn’t feel safe, they’re not going to learn at school,” Stanislawski said. “They don’t want to go to school.”

He also stressed that if the legislation “could save one child from committing suicide because they were constantly being bullied, if we can prevent just one suicide, that’s well worth this law today.”

However, Sen. David Bullard, a Durant Republican and former teacher, said he is concerned the language of the bill is too open to interpretation, which could create regulatory uncertainty and lead to unintended consequences.

“There are just too many broad terms,” Bullard said.

SB 1133 passed the Oklahoma Senate on a 40-6 vote.

While the legislation could increase public awareness of bullying problems in local schools, it’s limited in providing avenues of escape for victims of severe bullying, as was highlighted during discussion of the bill.

“Is there an allowance in this bill for the bullied student to go to another school if necessary?” asked Sen. Dave Rader, R-Tulsa.

Sharp said the legislation does not address that issue. He said open transfer between public-school districts is allowed in such situations, although he noted the receiving district must accept the transfer.

Lawmakers have balked at providing more meaningful assistance to the families of bullied children.

Senate Bill 570, by Sen. Rob Standridge, R-Norman, would have created the “Hope Scholarship Program Act.” Under the bill, students who have “been the victim of harassment, intimidation or bullying” at least three times within a school year could receive state funding to attend the school of their choice, including private schools.

To qualify, a student’s family would have been required to provide written documentation of bullying “with confirmation from a licensed mental health professional or physician.”

Even though the bill was written to apply only to the most extreme cases of school violence and bullying, the legislation was defeated in the Senate Education Committee, falling on a 10-6 vote.

According to the 2017 Oklahoma Youth Risk Behavior Survey, 21.3 percent of Oklahoma youth were bullied on school property, 6.1 percent did not go to school because they felt unsafe, and 13.4 percent made a plan to commit suicide.

Ray Carter Director, Center for Independent Journalism

Ray Carter

Director, Center for Independent Journalism

Ray Carter is the director of OCPA’s Center for Independent Journalism. He has two decades of experience in journalism and communications. He previously served as senior Capitol reporter for The Journal Record, media director for the Oklahoma House of Representatives, and chief editorial writer at The Oklahoman. As a reporter for The Journal Record, Carter received 12 Carl Rogan Awards in four years—including awards for investigative reporting, general news reporting, feature writing, spot news reporting, business reporting, and sports reporting. While at The Oklahoman, he was the recipient of several awards, including first place in the editorial writing category of the Associated Press/Oklahoma News Executives Carl Rogan Memorial News Excellence Competition for an editorial on the history of racism in the Oklahoma legislature.

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