If Montana lawmakers approve a pending bill, every state in the country will have a law that requires school districts to adopt anti-bullying policies.
The state currently has a policy, but not a law, which anti-bullying advocates say is necessary to drive real action at the local level. Most states had enacted anti-bullying laws by 2010, motivated by high-profile incidents and new research about its potential for lifelong effects. Here’s a map from Stopbullying.gov that shows what’s in place around the country.
Montana will lose its status as the only glowing green shape on that map if it adopts a bill proposed by Rep. Kimberly Dudik, a Democrat. That bill, which has been amended several times since it was originally proposed, is on the agenda for the state Senate’s education committee Friday.
The bill, which would apply only to public schools, defines bullying as “any harassment, intimidation, hazing, or threatening, insulting, or demeaning gesture or physical contact, including any intentional written, verbal, or electronic communication or threat directed against a student or employee that is persistent, severe, or repeated” and that causes physical harm, property damage or “reasonable fear of harm” to a person or their property; creates a “hostile environment” that interferes with a student’s education, or “substantially and materially disrupts the orderly operation of a school.”
The bill would prohibit bullying on any school premises, during any school-sponsored event, and through the use of electronic communication if that communication “substantially and materially” disrupts a school activity. Students found in violation of the law could face penalties including suspension and expulsion.
Unlike other states, Montana’s bill (in its current form) would not prescribe minimum requirements for local district policies. Instead, it simply says that each district must have a policy addressing bullying, and that each district “has discretion and control over the development and implementation of its policy.” Without more specific mandates, it’s unclear what those policies would look like and how effective they would be.
How might this help schools?
The U.S. Department of Education has consistently said in guidance to educators that failing to address bullying or harrassment of students because of reasons like sexual orientation, gender identity, race, or ethnicity could be a violation of federal civil rights laws. Anti-bullying advocates say state laws provide clear mandates to districts and political cover when they adopt local policies that will help them protect all students.
Are there any free speech concerns?
Free speech concerns have been a big sticking point when other states have considered anti-bullying legislation. That has particularly been true when proposals included prohibitions on harrassment based on gender identity or sexual orientation, which some conservative religious groups have said would chill speech about student viewpoints on issues like same-sex marriage. Montana’s bill notably does not list any specific protected groups of students or address motivation for bullying.
But the bill does include a prohibition on so-called “cyberbullying.” Such prohibitions in other states have sparked fears from free speech advocates who say it’s unfair to punish a student at school for behaviors he or she completed on a home computer outside of school hours.
What else is happening on the anti-bullying front?
As states enter their legislative sessions, many are considering revising or tweaking their anti-bullying policies to adjust possible consequences, definitions, and efforts to track incidents of bullying.
On the national level, U.S. Senators Mark Kirk, R-Ill., and Bob Casey, D-Penn., reintroduced in January the Safe Schools Improvement Act, which would essentially mandate local anti-bullying policies. It prescribes required elements for those policies, including that they explicitly prohibit bullying on the basis of sexual orientation or gender identity. The bill has failed to gain traction in previous sessions of Congress.
A version of this news article first appeared in the Rules for Engagement blog.