J.E. McReynolds | February 14, 2019

Hope Scholarship bill for bullied kids fails in committee

J.E. McReynolds

Starting in the first week of the 2017-18 academic year, a sophomore at an Edmond high school was subjected to what he and his mother claim were relentless acts of bullying. The mother, Cara O’Daniel, complained to school officials. Instead of getting the response she expected, O’Daniel said, the officials “wanted to put a Band-Aid on it and forget about it.”

The suburban mother says bullied students should have the option to transfer to a private school at public expense. Although coming too late to help her son, a bill introduced in the 2019 legislative session would have made such transfers possible.

However, Senate Bill 570, authored by state Sen. Rob Standridge (R-Norman) and co-authored by state Sen. Gary Stanislawski (R-Tulsa) and House Majority Floor Leader Jon Echols (R-Oklahoma City), failed to clear the Senate Education Committee this week, falling on a 10-6 vote.

Senators who opposed SB 570 were J.J. Dossett (D-Owasso), Carri Hicks (D-Oklahoma City), Allison Ikley-Freeman (D-Tulsa), Tom Dugger (R-Stillwater), John Haste (R-Broken Arrow), Chris Kidd (R-Waurika), Roland Pederson (R-Burlington), Dewayne Pemberton (R-Muskogee), Paul Scott (R-Duncan), and Jason Smalley (R-Stroud).

Senators voting in favor were David Bullard (R-Durant), Marty Quinn (R-Claremore), Wayne Shaw (R-Grove), Joe Newhouse (R-Broken Arrow), Gary Stanislawski (R-Tulsa), and Senate President Pro Tempore Greg Treat (R-Edmond).

“We don’t want anyone else to have to go through what we have,” O’Daniel said in a press release after the committee vote. “I don’t understand how our legislators can vote against a policy designed to help kids and parents in desperate circumstances. Children’s safety and education need to be their top priority.”

“No one should have to be put in the situation my family has had to face—to have to place legal guardianship of our son with a relative, and have him move so far away, just so a school can provide a safe environment for him to succeed and enjoy the last of his high school years.” —Edmond mother Cara O’Daniel

Robert Ruiz, executive director of ChoiceMatters, a parent advocacy group, lamented the defeat of SB 570.

“Every year, we see lawmakers reject policies designed to help children and parents because of politics,” Ruiz said. “The people who are hurt the most by that failure are kids trapped in poverty, kids with special needs, or disabilities, or the victims of bullying. These children and their families are suffering because special interest groups in education want to preserve our current system at all costs.”

Under the terms of the bill, public school students subjected to repeated bullying or harassment could transfer to a private institution at state expense. The legislation codified the extent of bullying or harassment to which the financial aid would be tied.

SB 570, designed to take effect during the 2020-21 academic year, would have created the Hope Scholarship program. The parents or guardians of a student victimized by a minimum of three verified acts of harassment, bullying, or intimidation within a single school year would have been eligible to apply for a Hope Scholarship.

Before the vote, Jennifer Carter, state director of the American Federation for Children, said her organization favored the legislation.

“We support giving parents more educational choices, and this certainly includes parents of children being bullied at school,” Carter said. “There have been too many instances where children have attempted suicide due to bullying, and even when things don’t escalate to that point, bullying can have severe detrimental impact on a child’s success in school and social development.”

A statewide survey of Oklahoma voters, commissioned by OCPA and conducted by WPA Intelligence from January 29 to January 31, found that 64 percent of respondents support the idea of providing private-school scholarships to bullied students, while 29 percent oppose the idea.

Support outpolled opposition among Republicans (60 percent to 35 percent), Independents (65 percent to 28 percent), and Democrats (71 percent to 20 percent).

The Oklahoma Education Association, a public-school teachers union that generally opposes the use of public money for private school tuition, did not respond to multiple requests for comment on SB 570.

O’Daniel said her son experienced depression and other ill health effects after the reported bullying. The family couldn’t afford private school tuition. Edmond officials offered her son the option of moving to another high school in the district. Instead, the young man moved in with a relative and now attends a suburban public high school in another part of the state.

Carter called SB 570 “an important tool to empower parents and ensure more of these stories end in triumph, not tragedy.” She said no parent “should be forced to send their child to a school, knowing their child will be harassed, simply because of a ZIP code.”

The state already pays private school tuition through a voucher program created in 2010. The program is known as the Lindsey Nicole Henry Scholarship Program for Children with Disabilities. The scholarship is named for the daughter of a former Oklahoma governor, Democrat Brad Henry.

School bullying isn’t an isolated problem. The federal Centers for Disease Control (CDC) and the U.S. Department of Education define bullying in the context of schools as unwanted aggressive behavior that may take the form of physical, verbal, relational (efforts to harm a student’s reputation), or damage to property. A subset of this behavior is known as cyberbullying, which involves threats or other behavior conveyed electronically rather than face-to-face.

According to the CDC’s 2017 Youth Risk Behavior Surveillance System, 19 percent of students in grades 9-12 said they were bullied on school property in the previous 12 months. Nearly 15 percent of students reported being victims of cyberbullying. Bullying is most prevalent in the middle-school grades.

By law, Oklahoma school districts must have a policy in place to document and investigate allegations of bullying, intimidation, and harassment. SB 570 required Hope Scholarship applicants to provide proof that incidents of bullying had been made known to the public school district in which the incidents occurred. Under federal law, some instances of bullying can be construed as a violation of civil rights.

Last year, a study commissioned by the Oklahoma Statewide Virtual Charter School board concluded that bullying is a top-ranking factor among Oklahoma families in choosing to enroll a student in a virtual charter school.

In a written statement, O’Daniel said no one “should have to be put in the situation my family has had to face—to have to place legal guardianship of our son with a relative, and have him move so far away, just so a school can provide a safe environment for him to succeed and enjoy the last of his high school years.

“We have to care enough about bullying to stand united and find a solution to ensure that each and every child gets a quality education, in a safe environment. They have that right, and we have that responsibility.”

J.E. McReynolds

Independent Journalist

A former managing editor of The Journal Record, J. E. McReynolds has served as a general assignment reporter, business editor, and opinion editor of The Oklahoman.

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