DES MOINES, Iowa — A bill designed to crack down on so-called cyberbullying failed to advance in the Legislature this year, but Gov. Terry Branstad plans to keep working to toughen Iowa's anti bullying laws.
Branstad said Thursday that he plans to hold another state summit on bullying, as he did last fall, and will try to get something passed next year.
"It's one of the big challenges kids have. We've had suicides. We've had some real tragedies occur in our state. We want to prevent this and we want kids to feel safe," Branstad said. "If kids are going to excel in school they can't feel fear of riding a school bus or what is going to happen in school grounds or what may happen at home via the social media."
The bullying bill offered by Branstad this year would have updated state guidelines for school districts to include bullying that occurs outside school on social media websites like Facebook. It received subcommittee approval in the House, but never moved forward. The exact reasons it stalled remain unclear, though concerns from lawmakers over student free speech and the logistics of implementing the measure played a role.
Branstad said he didn't want to dwell on why the bill failed, instead looking ahead to next year.
"Sometimes they take years and there are a lot of hurdles you have to overcome. I just think there's a lot of work that needs to be done. I think there's a lot of misgivings," Branstad said. "We want to do something that will not be controversial and provide protection for all kids."
Branstad's focus on the issue followed some high-profile incidents.
Last year, a 14-year-old boy from Primghar committed suicide following bullying at school and online after he told people he was gay. Also in 2012, a Mason City girl and her mother sued the Mason City school district, saying it did nothing to protect the teen from bullying. And the documentary "Bully," released in 2011, featured a Sioux City student.
Matt Carver, legal services director for the School Administrators of Iowa, said school leaders need more tools to deal with online bullying.
"A great deal of the bullying that is occurring is outside of school on social network sites," said Carver, adding that he's hopeful the Legislature will approve a version of the bill once it has more information. "In Iowa, getting your education is a right."
Mike Cormack, a policy liaison for the state Department of Education and a former teacher, said online bullying is a hard thing to spot.
"It's hard to educate a student when they come to school and all they can think about was the bad things said about them online last night," said Cormack, a former Republican state representative. "It's hard as a teacher, because you don't always see it."