Applause echoed throughout the largest Statehouse committee room Wednesday morning after members of the House Education Committee passed an anti-bullying bill.
Normally, committee chairmen attempt to preserve legislative decorum by not allowing outbursts, interruptions or applause during hearings.
But after accepting about two hours of often-difficult testimony from families who said their lives have been gutted by bullying, Chairman Reed DeMordaunt, R-Eagle, didn’t reach for his gavel to cut off applause.
Instead, he muttered a muffled “thank you” under his breath and quietly adjourned the meeting.
House Bill 246 was designed as a prevention bill, not a punitive measure, its sponsors said. The bill prevents bullying by any student or minor on school property and defines several forms of harassment and intimidation, including cyber bullying.
The legislation also states school personnel are authorized and expected to intervene and shall provide training to help staff members identify bullying.
Finally, it outlines a series of potential consequences, ranging from counseling to expulsion, and states that those who violate the bullying law may be guilty of an infraction.
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The bill represents a bipartisan effort to curb bullying in schools. Sponsoring Rep. Ilana Rubel, D-Boise, worked with Rep. Patrick McDonald, R-Boise, and Sen. Janie Ward-Engelking, D-Boise, to guide the legislation through the committee process.
Matt McCarter, who heads up school safety initiatives for the State Department of Education, told lawmakers that 33.8 percent of Idaho students surveyed by the state said they were bullied in the previous year. More than 55 percent of students admitted to witnessing their peers be bullied.
“If you view the data… you cannot in any way shape or form deny the fact that we have a lot of victims out there and … it can be catastrophic,” said McDonald, a former U.S. marshal for Idaho.
All of the more than 20 people who testified on the bill supported it. At least three parents whose children were bullied and later died by suicide urged lawmakers to pass anti-bullying legislation. Several students went before lawmakers to describe how they were bullied, assaulted and humiliated or how their friends dropped out of school or took their own lives. In some cases, parents and students testified, school officials did not take action to remedy the problem.
A 15-year-old Nampa student named Jacob pleaded for committee members to pass the bill, but argued symbolically they would be among the last to sign it if it passes.
“(The bill) has already been signed by the tears of mothers and fathers who have had to bury their children as a result of bullying,” Jacob said.
Testimony appeared to move several committee members, with one lawmaker dabbing teary eyes with a tissue and DeMordaunt praising the bravery of students who testified.
“I dare say that will be the best testimony we are going to hear today,” DeMordaunt told Jacob.
Perry Brown, an Idaho pediatrician, said he sees the cost of bullying in ways many others do not. Brown said young students enter his office every day bearing the scars of bullying – some taking the form of physical injuries, while others are internal or psychological.
“I’d love to stand here in front of you and say bullying isn’t that big of a deal, but I’d be completely lying,” Brown said. “It’s a gigantic issue.”
He added that children who have been bullied seek his help and care “literally every day at this point in time.”
The bill next heads to the House floor for consideration.