The struggle over bullying in Idaho schools may not be a knock-down, drag-out brawl, but it's a fight nonetheless. In fact, the toughest scrap over bullying is expected to occur in the next few days--not on a playground but at the Idaho Capitol.
But Boise Democratic Sen. Nicole LeFavour has seen this tussle before, particularly in the Idaho House. That's where previous anti-bullying efforts have died and that's where LeFavour is prepared to make her last Statehouse stand on the matter (LeFavour has announced her retirement at the end of the 2012 session in anticipation of her run for U.S. Congress).
"We've worked on this for the last year-and-a-half," said LeFavour, addressing her colleagues March 15 on the Senate floor. "We have reached a point in our state where harm is being done to young people, and we have an obligation to make our anti-bullying laws more effective."
The six-page Senate Bill 1358a defines bullying and includes references to cyberbullying, but its most important element includes requirements for educators to be adequately trained on how to intervene in bullying or intimidation.
"When parents send their kids to school, they need to know if that school is doing everything in its power to make their kids safe," said LeFavour. "Many schools do a wonderful job. But I have to say, unfortunately, there are some schools in our state that don't."
One of LeFavour's major challenges while convincing her fellow legislators to support the measure was that she was unable to present any empirical data to support the need for change in Idaho code.
"Could you cite a study or survey that shows us that bullying is on the rise in Idaho?" asked Boise Republican Sen. Mitch Toryanski.
"I have never said that bullying was on the rise," answered LeFavour. "But I can tell you that the State Department of Education gets at least one call a week from parents who are concerned that their school isn't doing anything about the bullying that their child is experiencing."
But Toryanski pressed LeFavour.
"Is it entirely possible that incidents of bullying in Idaho could be going down?"
"We hear stories all the time about a lot of [bullying] incidents," LeFavour responded.
A 2009 survey of Boise State freshman from Idaho high schools taken by the Safe Schools Coalition found that 87 percent of self-identified heterosexual students and 92 percent of self-identified LGBT students had witnessed bullying. Additionally 36 percent of heterosexual students and 25 percent of LGBT students witnessed it often or very often.
LeFavour also pointed to this year's Idaho Youth Risk Behavior Survey, released by the Idaho Department of Education, which indicated that nearly 23 percent of Idaho high schoolers surveyed reported being bullied or harassed on school property in the past year.
"Those numbers," recalled LeFavour. "They are quite sobering."
But when Boise Weekly asked Karen Echeverria, executive director of the Idaho School Boards Association, to provide any recent statistics on bullying in Idaho schools, she said there weren't any that she knew of.
"I don't have a sense for it, and that tells me something," said Echeverria. "We provide policy services to more than 80 of Idaho's 115 school districts and about half of the charter schools. We also provide legal services. I've been here for almost five years now and I can tell you that I've never had a school district contact me on the topic [of bullying]."
Echeverria said she didn't know where the legislation was stemming from.
"That was one of the things that our school districts said to us over and over," said Echeverria. "They said, 'This is not necessary legislation.'"
But LeFavour couldn't disagree more.
"We're receiving emails from across the state and it's heartbreaking," said LeFavour. "We have a role in the public safety of our children and parents need to know that schools are safe," said LeFavour.
Echeverria said the biggest pushback from Idaho school boards was that the bill's fiscal statement had no dollar figure attached to it.
"It is the intent of this legislation that this statute be carried out within the existing framework of the State Department of Education and State Board of Education," reads the Statement of Purpose. "Thus there should be no impact on the state's General Fund."
But Echeverria said that's bad math.
"First of all, the required training would have to include not just certificated staff--who are the teachers--but the classified staff as well. It covers all employees," Echeverria said, "With the reductions in budgets, most, if not all, of the professional development days have been removed from school calendars. The only way to provide this new professional training, which would be required by this bill, is to either reduce student-teacher contact time even more, or add a half-day or even a full-day back to the calendar."
LeFavour responds by saying the alternative would be worse.
"If a district doesn't do the work of preventing bullying, they open themselves up to lawsuits," said LeFavour. "Lawsuits have been filed all across the country against schools that have failed to protect kids."
Ultimately, LeFavour convinced enough of her senate colleagues to pass S.B. 1358a, but she knows that the hardest task is ahead. She faces a more-conservative House, which nixed a similar bill last year. Plus Echeverria said she'll be there to counter LeFavour's arguments if, or when, it comes before the House Education Committee.
"We'll work against it on the House side," said Echeverria. "There may not even be any time to consider it. But if it goes over to the House, we'll be there to discuss our same concerns."