DES MOINES | Iowa Sen. Tom Harkin said Friday he will push for more money in federal grants to pay for anti-bullying programs and attach more strings to teacher training money the federal government already doles out.
Harkin made his remarks after a 2½- hour hearing of the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee in the gymnasium of East High School in Des Moines.
But testimony at the hearing, which included brutally frank and heart-wrenching accounts of bullying from student panelists, made it clear that the federal government has a limited ability to do much about bullying and even struggles to define the issue.
“The boy pointed at people and said, ‘Dumb, dumber and dumbest.’ When he said dumbest, he pointed at me,” said Emily Domayer, a 2006 graduate of Sioux City North High School. “I was 7 years old the first time I was bullied.”
Domayer, who was diagnosed with Asperger’s syndrome at age 12, now works as an advocate for children with disabilities. She shared her story with Harkin and about five dozen strangers who attended the hearing.
There’s been a growing awareness of the problems associated with bullying both in the classroom and over the Internet as instances of teen suicide have caught national attention.
Dharun Ravi, a Rutgers University student, was sentenced to 30 days in jail last month for spying on his roommate’s gay tryst and writing about it in social media. Days later, his roommate, Tyler Clementi, committed suicide. In Iowa, 14-year-old Kenneth Weishuhn Jr. began to be teased and bullied after he came out as gay to some classmates at South O’Brien High School in Paullina, and he later committed suicide.
There is no federal definition of what bullying is, and civil rights law doesn’t cover sexual orientation as a protected class as it does race, religion and gender.
According to data released this week by the Human Rights Campaign that Harkin cited in his remarks, LGBT youths are twice as likely to report being bullied physically or emotionally as their non-LGBT peers. LGBT is an acronym for lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender.
Although the senator said he would push for more money for Safe and Supportive Schools grants, he wasn’t sure what level was obtainable. Eleven states, including Iowa, received a total of $43 million through the program last year. In Iowa, money went to schools in Waterloo, Des Moines and Sioux City, among others.
Ellen Reilly, who oversees the Olweus Bullying Prevention Program for the Davenport Community School District, said not everything has to cost a bunch of money and support for students should be a key component of any plan.
“It’s critical that we have gay/straight alliances in every middle and high school,” Reilly said. “A student should know about it when he or she enters school. GSA should have the same importance as French club, debate team and football.”
How that would go over with local school boards is difficult to tell, but Linn-Mar High School student Matt Shankles said something has to be done. He said he lost half his friends when they learned in eighth grade he was gay.
“Students are dying in their homes and in our schools. That’s not OK,” he told the audience.