DES MOINES, Iowa (AP) — Gov. Terry Branstad’s recent executive order to create an office for bullying prevention in Iowa schools bypasses years of failed legislative action, but it raises questions about how the small office will tackle major problems.
The Governor’s Office for Bullying Prevention, announced Sept. 28, will be managed by the Center for Violence Prevention at the University of Northern Iowa. The center’s director, Alan Heisterkamp, is the only full-time employee there; others who travel around the state to offer training are mostly volunteers.
Heisterkamp emphasized the new office will “provide some clarity” and be a resource for numerous groups and schools already focusing on bullying prevention efforts. Among the responsibilities specified by Branstad’s executive order is offering training opportunities for school districts, developing a parental notification policy for schools and tackling data collection problems that have plagued the state’s Department of Education.
Annette Lynch, who founded the center in 2011 and now serves as an adviser, said she’s confident the center has the infrastructure in place to do meaningful work.
“It’s not like all of a sudden we’re going to start doing this initiative. We’ve been doing this initiative, really, for years,” she said. “What this does is empower us to do it more systematically.”
The center has an operating budget of about $160,000. For years the center was funded through UNI, private dollars and federal money. It will seek $250,000 in individualized state funding for the upcoming fiscal year.
It’s unclear how much the center will spend on bullying-prevention training and those other initiatives, including a privately funded student mentorship program. Lynch said a round of private funding will allow for immediate training opportunities to some schools.
Heisterkamp said the center will have more information in the next few months about how the new office will carry out its work.
Heisterkamp said he was contacted about the creation of an anti-bullying office less than two weeks ago. Branstad spokesman Ben Hammes said the governor has been considering the creation of such an office for months.
The Republican governor has made anti-bullying efforts a legislative priority over the last few sessions. A bill that would have awarded $200,000 for teacher training and a student mentoring program passed in the Senate this year, but failed to garner enough support in the House.
Democratic Sen. Herman Quirmbach, chairman of the Senate Education Committee, said the House should reconsider the bill this year. He also said he supports the new bullying-prevention office, but he’s critical of its creation through an executive order, which many anti-bullying groups say was a surprise.
“Let’s all work together instead of somebody trying to cowboy some issue, no matter how much merit it has,” Quirmbach said.
Branstad will see how the new office performs before considering any new anti-bullying legislation, his spokesman said.
Other anti-bullying groups say they support the new office, but still plan to call for legislation next session.
“Schools are not required to follow this executive order as it includes mainly guidance. There is no teeth or funding in this order,” said Nate Monson, executive director of Iowa Safe Schools, in a statement.
For now, the center plans to reach out to state education officials and other groups following bullying issues. It also plans to have a website available soon.
Heisterkamp said the additional money requested will allow the center to add two more staffers; he isn’t sure how the additional staffing would be divided between the center and the bullying prevention office.
House Education Committee chairman Rep. Ron Jorgensen wants a breakdown of how the center will spend $250,000, which Heisterkamp said he plans to provide.
The Sioux City Republican said he understands Branstad’s rationale for the executive order. He says he’s less optimistic about the chances of anti-bullying legislation advancing.
“I do agree that having something codified is much stronger than just having an executive order that can be changed whenever the next person becomes governor,” he said.
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