Dennis McCartan
Dennis McCartan
October 4, 2013

"Bullying is an issue at every school," said Carroll High School guidance counselor Dennis McCartan. "If someone says it isn't, they're lying."

McCartan does not believe that bullying itself has increased, but that awareness of it has.

"Things that were considered horseplay and teasing are now recognized as bullying," he said.

There has also been an increase in the ways people can be bullied with the rising prevalence of social media and cyberbullying.

"People often think physical bullying is the big issue, but mental and verbal bullying are more common," he said. According to McCartan, studies have consistently shown that bullying and harassment have a range of lasting effects from academics to relationships, both in the present and later in life.

October is bullying prevention month. As awareness of bullying and its different forms have grown, so have anti-bullying initiatives on the local, state and national levels.

At the end of September, U.S. Rep. Bruce Braley, D-Iowa, and U.S. Sen. Tom Harkin, D-Iowa, introduced the Successful, Safe and Healthy Students Act. If passed, the bill would create two grant programs. One would provide funding to states to distribute to schools to promote physical activity, good nutrition and prevention of bullying, harassment and violence. The other would provide grants for districts to develop and improve data systems to help schools and communities make appropriate adjustments in the learning environment.

"Obviously one-size-fits-all doesn't work," said Jeff Giertz, spokesman for Braley's office. "Local educators know best what programs work in their schools but don't always have funds, and this bill would help."

Giertz said that the government shutdown has derailed staff efforts to find cosponsors for the bill. However, he does not see the fiscal standoff as a reason to stop pursuit of other goals.

"I think this bill is the start of a conversation. There are plenty of opportunities for Congress to walk and chew gum at the same time," said Giertz. "Representative Braley believes there can be important debates about the budget and also pass meaningful legislation to help schools deal with bullying in effective ways."

Giertz said that Braley's interest in the issue of bullying draws from his wife's work as a teacher in Waterloo, and his mother's experience as a substitute teacher. Braley and Harkin have worked together on past legislation. Harkin's office could not be contacted due to the government shutdown.

Giertz said that Braley is open to working with Republicans and Democrats to find common ground and a way to fund the new bill.

The office of U.S. Rep. Steve King, R-Iowa, did not respond to requests for comment.

On the state level, Gov. Terry Branstad will hold the second Governor's Bullying Prevention Summit on Nov. 4 at Hy-Vee Hall in Des Moines.

"The governor is encouraged to see Congress focus on the important issue of bullying, but we don't want to wait on Washington to pursue a bipartisan Iowa-based solution," said spokesman Tim Albrecht.

According to the 2012 Iowa Youth Survey, more than half of students reported being bullied at school in the previous 30 days.

"A lot of this can occur outside the school on social networks like Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, YouTube," said Albrecht. "We're challenging how to combat bullying, not just on the playground, but the Internet as well."

Last year the summit sold out, drawing in more than 1,000 students and adults. Featured speakers included Rosalind Wiseman, author of "Queen Bees and Wannabes: Helping Your Daughter Survive Cliques, Gossip, Boyfriends, and the New Realities of Girl World" which inspired the hit movie "Mean Girls." Albrecht said organizers expect this year's summit to sell out as well, and hopes the discussion leads to legislation.

State Rep. Dan Muhlbauer, D-Manilla, said there is currently no anti-bullying legislation on the floor, but he believes there will be soon.

"We keep working with education all the time," he said. "Last session we focused on getting stronger teachers and issues of that nature. I expect we will be addressing the issue of bullying when we're back in session."

State Senator Mark Segebart, R-Vail, hopes legislation will address teacher conduct as well as student.

"The thing with bullying is that you're talking about natural human behavior," he said. "Often educators don't know how to handle it either, and that can keep them from solving the problem."

The Iowa Grocery Industry Association has joined forces with Branstad and Lt. Gov. Kim Reynolds to raise money for the summit. Individuals will be able to donate at the registers of both the Hy-Vee and Fareway in Carroll through the months of October and November. Any funds remaining after the costs of the summit are covered will be placed in a bullying-prevention-education fund for Iowa schools. According to a press release from the governor's office, grants will be distributed evenly among rural, urban and suburban schools.

McCartan said that the Carroll district started a homeroom anti-bullying program last year. Students participate in one or two activities each month.

"They focus on making students aware of the different types of bullying and how to respond," said McCartan. "Often kids know how bullying happens, but not how to respond."

One such activity was held Wednesday. Students were asked to define an intimate relationship to distinguish the difference between the 100 to 150 friends or family members an individual truly associates with and the sometimes 1,000 or more Facebook friends or Twitter followers.

"The point was that there are lonely people, withdrawing because they couldn't develop intimate relationships, or maybe had been pushed away," said McCartan. "Even with all the social media, there are still a lot of lonely people, often because they were bullied at some point."

The Kuemper Catholic School System has bullying-prevention programs as well, starting in kindergarten. Guidance counselor Deb McCarty facilitates the programs in the elementary schools through the fifth grade, using books and visual aids, such as the "bully-proof vest." Though student surveys have not revealed a "significant" bullying problem in the schools, students did identify the bus and the bathroom as the two areas where they were most likely to be teased. She has incorporated those areas into the programming.

"We're teaching them not to be a bystander," she said. "It's also about confidence. We're teaching how to give yourself a voice."