The Enid News and Eagle, Enid, OK

February 3, 2011

Legislation could address widespread problem

By Robert Barron, Staff Writer
Enid News and Eagle

ENID — In recent years, bullying has become recognized as a serious problem with major psychological and physical impact.

Enid Public Schools defines bullying or harassment as verbal, physical or written harassment or abuse. That includes repeated demeaning remarks, implied or explicit threats, demeaning jokes, stories or activities directed at a student, or unwelcome physical contact.

But bullying has become such a widespread problem among both youths and adults, several Oklahoma legislators have introduced bills addressing various aspects of the issue, and some have been introduced for the upcoming session, which starts Monday.

 State Sen. Andrew Rice, D-Oklahoma City, introduced a bill that expands what school districts already are required to do. Schools already are required to develop anti-bullying policies, and his bill expands those to include cyberbullying. That includes text messaging and social networks — activities that are not always on school property — but relate to what happens on school property.

“There aren’t a lot of specifics, it’s just expanding the scope of policies,” he said.

Rice said he does not see any evidence of more problems in Oklahoma than elsewhere, but there seems to be increased aggression through cyberspace. Texting or using social networks to harass seems to be increasing, he said, because of the less personal nature of the Internet. Bullying by social media has increased, and Rice referred to a case in Chickasha where a youth was receiving direct threats made through Facebook and other media.

“We’re just trying to get school districts to think about it and deal with it when it arises and develop policies like how they talk to parents and students about what is appropriate or not,” Rice said.

Rice said the reason for the bill is to make sure school districts are looking at the larger picture of the types of harassment. Bullying does not always occur on school property, but is related to what happens at school. Rice’s bill does not include many specifics, but expands the scope of policies.

“I don’t see any evidence or more problems here than anywhere else. There seems to be an increased aggressiveness through the cyber aspect,” Rice said.

Rice said cyber messaging seems to embolden people to be inappropriate and more aggressive. One of the interesting things he has discovered is cyberbullying seems to enable people to be more aggressive because it is less personal, and many hurtful things are said on the computer, he said.

“It’s becoming an increased problem, the case in Chickasha of a kid getting direct threats made through Facebook,” he said.

State Rep. Mike Jackson, R-Enid, said bullying has been discussed since he was first elected to the Oklahoma House six years ago. He thinks any anti-bullying legislation will get a sympathetic hearing in the House.

“There are some shell bills that could be used in either Title 70, education, or Title 21, criminal,” Jackson said.

State Rep. Anastasia Pittman, D-Oklahoma City, has introduced the Ty Fields Smalley Bullying Prevention Act, named for a Perkins youth who was bullied at school and eventually committed suicide at age 11.

The 15-page bill is an expansion of the definition of bullying and adds some requirements that strengthen legislation, such as developing specific processes to evaluate anti-bullying policies at schools.

“There is a form to fill out on the Department of Education website,” she said, “but we don’t know if they are revisited and there is no way to measure follow-up to see if they are successful.

“Nothing says the accusation has been reviewed or must be revisited, and it doesn’t allow children with a history of bullying incidents to have some sort of indication in the files when they transfer schools, so the administrator in the new school will know the type of student is entering the school system,” Pittman said.

Her legislation also changes the definition of harassment and bullying and includes threatening behavior, who is covered and characteristics that can cause bullying, such as physical or learning disabilities.

Ty Fields was a student who also was bullied by adults, members of the school staff, she said. Fields eventually stood up to a bully and received the same punishment as the bully, which humiliated him, and he committed suicide because he thought his father would be ashamed of him, Pittman said.

Pittman said she has received a good response from other legislators, as bullying is starting to be seen as a problem that is gaining in prominence and understanding. She said cyberbullying also has increased.

Oklahoma pops up on the national bullying scene, she said. Pittman believes other states have stronger policies and laws, particularly New Jersey. Oklahoma has been used as an example of bullying and suicides, she said. An Oklahoma woman was featured on “Anderson Cooper 360” discussing being a bully, she said.

Two other bills were pre-filed by Rep. Lee Denny, R-Cushing, chairwoman of the  appropriation and budget committee for education, and Rep. Ann Coody, R-Lawton, chairwoman of the common education committee.

State Rep. John Enns, R-Enid, said he would be inclined to support legislation addressing bullying.

“I agree bullying is a problem in the state and the nation,” he said. “If we can strengthen ways to give teachers more power to deal with it, it’s a good idea. Speaking generally, I do know it’s a huge problem, a problem in Enid and probably every school district.

“We have to let them get tough about where they can suspend students, or send them to alternate schools, or something. We have to have some type of alternative. We don’t always have to suspend them out of school.”