HELENA – Montana’s schools superintendent, attorney general and many others told lawmakers Monday that state standards are needed for school bullying policies to help end a problem that afflicts many students each year.
The proposal to protect students in public schools defines “bullying, harassment or intimidation” as “any threatening, insulting or demeaning” behavior, even if done after school hours over the Internet. The issue has risen in prominence nationally over the past year following well-publicized suicides of bullied students.
Opponents argued the policy should not be handed down by the state and could open schools up to lawsuits for failing to protect students from bullying.
Supporters of Montana’s bill say it is important that the state specify that bullying is prohibited and set standards for local school district policies on bullying. It would guide procedures for investigation of complaints, notifying parents and protecting victims from further bullying.
They said bullying is different than teasing, such as by being repetitive and done with an intent to harm.
Several young students testified that bullying is a real problem that makes it nearly impossible to attend school and socialize.
“The thought that some children don’t feel safe at school is something that Montanans can’t allow,” said Sen. Kim Gillan, the Billings Democrat carrying Senate Bill 141. “This bill is not anti anything, except it is anti-bullying.”
Superintendent of Public Instruction Denise Juneau said recent national incidents in which students, many of them gay, killed themselves after being bullied and harassed demonstrate the need for such a bill.
“Montana is not immune,” she told the Senate Education Committee. “Bullying does happen in our schools.”
Opponents said they are not in favor of bullying, just the way the bill deals with the issue.
Several groups representing school districts and administrators said the bill needed to be changed to avoid creating potential legal liability problems for local districts, and they argued the setting of such policy is better done with the Board of Education rather than at the Legislature.
Some social conservatives also opposed the bill.
They included Tim Ravndal, who was in the news last year after he was ousted from a tea party group’s leadership over online anti-gay rhetoric that appeared to joke about the 1998 Wyoming beating death of Matthew Shepard, a gay college student. He has since helped start another tea party group.
Even though the bill does not deal with sexual orientation, the conservatives said it will come up.
“This bill would be a weapon against any anti-homosexual dissent,” said Harris Himes, a pastor with the Eagle Forum group. “There is a devil in the details, a true devil.”
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