SIOUX CITY | Iowa Gov. Terry Branstad on Wednesday called on state legislators to move past the gridlock of the 2013-14 session and give schools more tools to fight bullying.
Branstad said state and school officials need to work together to reduce bullying. Branstad made tougher bullying legislation one of his four priorities in 2014, but state lawmakers didn't follow through.
"This is a tough problem to take on, but one that is critically important," said Branstad, a Republican seeking a sixth term. "Every student deserves to be safe and respected in school."
Branstad and Lt. Gov. Kim Reynolds attended a West High School event that was the first of three statewide listening sessions on bullying reduction. Branstad noted 57 percent of students in the 2012 Iowa Youth Survey reported being bullied in the prior month.
Sessions are also scheduled Oct. 6 at North Linn High School in Troy Mills and Oct. 7 at the Orpheum Theater in Marshalltown.
Iowa legislators for two years have discussed but not passed laws concerning bullying. They haven't agreed on whether to require parental notification about bullying incidents or whether to give administrators authority to discipline students for incidents that occur online or outside school.
"(Bills were) approved in both chambers, but not in the same form," Branstad said, summarizing why efforts died.
Branstad said the fact that legislation didn't advance came in part because the House is controlled by Republicans and the Senate by Democrats. He said "tweaking" anti-bullying bills in 2015 could perhaps result in an accord.
Panelists at the event included four administrators and two West High students.
Sioux City became something of a front in a statewide push to reduce bullying in Iowa schools after the 2010 "Bully" documentary film was released. In the film, Alex Libby, then a 12-year-old student at East Middle School in Sioux City, was shown as a target for bullies. In the film, he is seen being punched, teased and taunted.
Since then, Sioux City district officials and students have participated in two annual anti-bullying summits hosted by Branstad.
Sioux City Superintendent Paul Gausman said bullying prevention has ramped up in schools, with more school personnel in hallways and more cameras on buses.
At West High, administrators handle the most severe bullying reports; other cases go through a mediation process.
"We have made strides here. We still have a long way to go," Gausman said.
He added that saying that bullying can be eliminated from schools would be like saying there will never be another war. Gausman said it is a societal problem, not limited to schools.
"We see bullying happening in churches, shopping malls. It happens everywhere," Gausman said.
West High student Karter Jones said altercations increasingly take place on smartphones or computers.
"It has shifted from in-person to social media," Jones said.
Student Kelli Massey said the best definition of bullying is "an imbalance of power." She said most students recognize telltale signs.
"(Victims) will start being disconnected and not being themselves .... Usually it does harm learning," Massey said.
Sioux City Director of Secondary Education Jim Vanderloo said all students have a hand in reducing bullying. He added that athletes and others highly involved in activities at the top of the social hierarchy have a key role.
Said Branstad, "If you are a bystander and you see this happening, you need to step up."