Committee approves tweaks to state anti-bullying rule cited in Welcoming Schools controversy
In 2018, suicide was the leading cause of death for Utahns aged 10 to 17, according to the Utah Department of Health.
While the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention cautions against claiming bullying directly causes suicide, it also says that evidence shows the two are closely related and that involvement in bullying — whether as victim or perpetrator — increases the risk of suicide-related behavior.
And the CDC says those who are the most vulnerable to being bullied are youth who stand out from their peers for reasons like disability or sexual or gender identity differences.
The Utah State Board of Education is attempting to hone exactly how school districts should attempt to prevent bullying and is refining an anti-bullying rule that spells out things like how to train staff and collect data.
Rule 277-613 is the rule the Park City School District cited when replying to a cease-and-desist letter regarding a controversial anti-bullying teacher training session last fall.
On Friday, a committee recommended a draft of the rule that includes specific safeguards for protected classes of people, like those who might be targeted because of their gender identity, sexual orientation or race.
That’s after a previous draft of the rule had been circulated that removed all mention of protected classes of people.
The rule requires school districts to provide bullying-related training to staff, and the draft that was forwarded Friday outlines what is to be required in the trainings, including information about bullying directed at those protected by Title IX and the Civil Rights Act.
State Board of Education Member Scott Hansen authored the latest draft, as well as the previous one that removed those protections and mentions of other federally protected classes of people.
Hansen said his intentions in writing the previous draft had been misinterpreted. His goal, he said, was to write a separate rule to deal with harassment that would have explicitly protected those classes of people.
Instead, Hansen reinserted the language into the latest draft, which was unanimously recommended to the Utah Board of Education by the Law and Licensing committee.
The rule could be approved by the Board of Education in March and implemented in May after a public comment period.
The committee’s chair, Carol Lear, said that the main improvements in the new rule are cleaning up redundant language, distinguishing between bullying and discrimination and providing common definitions so that all school districts would know how to properly gather bullying data.
“This whole process started because, frankly, I was concerned that educators who are trying to help us gather data in schools didn’t have common definitions,” Lear said. “Like if there’s a fight that involves six kids, kids are calling each other names and pushing, is it six incidents of bullying or one?”
Consistent data will enable districts to know what sort of behavior to target, and inform the kind of training offered to staff, Lear said.
The committee members accepted an amendment at Friday’s meeting forwarded by Board Member Jennie Earl that mandates the trainings address “the rights of a school employee, parent, or student to exercise the right of free speech.”
Earl explained that her amendment was to ensure the rule hewed to law passed by the state Legislature.
“We’ve emphasized all the other elements that are listed in that particular section (of the law) and just including that (language in the rule) continues in that same vein,” Earl told the committee.
Park City parent Michelle Deininger, who opposed the previous attempt to remove protections in the rule and testified at the meeting, said the amendment serves to protect the bullies rather than the bullied.
In August, an attorney that opposes the Welcoming Schools training program, which became the center of controversy at Trailside Elementary in the fall, cautioned the state Legislature’s Administrative Rules Review Committee that attempting to censor free speech might open the door for potential lawsuits.
That testimony came from Kevin Snider, who is chief counsel of the Pacific Justice Institute, a nonprofit, California-based law firm the Southern Poverty Law Center has labeled an anti-LGBTQ hate group. Snider also signed the cease-and-desist letter sent to the Park City School District in October regarding the Welcoming Schools program.
The Park City School District declined to comment on the proposed rule changes.
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It was an important decision since the rest of the talks will be heavily influenced by the processing option selected by the Planning Commission on Wednesday.