Students deserve a safe learning enviornment

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Montana’s children are off to a new school year and the excitement of learning.

Children need and deserve to learn in a safe environment. When children are bullied in schools, it makes them feel unsafe and makes learning (and life) harder. The children doing the bullying need help too.

Knowing this, the Montana Legislature passed the Bully-Free Montana Act in 2015 when I introduced this law to stop bullying in Montana’s schools. Because I carried this legislation, I am frequently contacted by citizens regarding bullying situations and what schools are required to do under the Act. As school has started again, it is a good time to focus on what Montana law requires schools to do regarding bullying.

Bullying of a student enrolled in a public K-12 school by another student or an employee is prohibited according to Montana Code sections 20-5-208 through 210. Montana law 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 that is persistent, severe, or repeated.”

The bullying conduct must do one of the following: (a) cause “a student physical harm,” damage “a student’s property, or” place “a student in reasonable fear of harm to the student or the student’s property;” (b) create “a hostile environment by interfering with or denying a student’s access to an educational opportunity or benefit;” or (c) “substantially and materially” disrupt “the orderly operation of a school.” Bullying includes “retaliation against a victim or witness who reports information about an act of bullying and includes acts of hazing associated with athletics or school-sponsored organizations or groups.”

Bullying behavior includes actions on school premises, in the classroom, on the bus, on the way to or from school, and during school-sponsored programs or activities. It also includes bullying through the use of electronic communication, including texts, emails or online activities.

A school must have a policy designed to deter and address bullying. Local school boards have discretion and control over the development of their own policies, but they must include at a minimum the following:

1. A prohibition against bullying behavior, regardless of any underlying reason the student engaged in such behavior;

2. A procedure for reporting and documenting bullying acts;

3. A procedure for investigation of all reports of bullying including the identification of persons responsible for the investigation and response;

4. A procedure for determining whether the bullying act is subject to the jurisdiction of the school district or of another public agency, including law enforcement;

5. A procedure for referral to the necessary persons or entity with appropriate jurisdiction;

6. A procedure for prompt notification of the alleged victim and the alleged perpetrator, or, if the students are minors, the parents or guardians of these students;

7. A procedure to protect any alleged bullying victim from further incidents of bullying behavior;

8. A disciplinary procedure establishing the consequences for students found to have committed bullying behavior; and

9. A procedure for the use of appropriate “intervention and remediation” for victims and perpetrators.

A person can contact law enforcement at any time regarding a bullying incident, even if the school is using administrative procedures to deal with the issue.

If you are concerned about bullying or wonder what your school’s policy is, contact your local school and ask for a copy of their policy. It should include these requirements. Talk to the school about any questions you have. School is a time for learning and we have a duty to ensure we are providing children the best environment possible to learn and grow.

Rep. Kimberly Dudik, D-Missoula, is a four-term legislator and candidate for Montana Attorney General.

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