Montana ponders joining 49 other states with anti-bully law

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HELENA, Mont. (AP) — Montana legislators on Wednesday considered whether to join every other state in the nation in putting anti-bullying policy into law.

A bill introduced by Rep. Kimberly Dudik, a Missoula Democrat, in the Montana House Education Committee would define bullying, prohibit it in public schools and require public school districts to adopt their own policies addressing the issue.

Pilar Petroski, a seventh-grader from Helena, and her father, Andrew, spoke in favor of the bill, with the 12-year-old saying she's frustrated with school officials who turn the other way when she tells them about death threats she's received along with harassment in person and online.

"The school needs to know exactly what bullying is because clearly to them I'm just a student who's being teased," Pilar told the committee. "I just want other people to realize how big of a deal this is."

There was no testimony against the proposal, but skeptical lawmakers asked whether it was necessary since a recently adopted state regulation provides similar protections.

The measure would explicitly define bullying as any repeated harassment, hazing or threatening online or in person. It carries the force of law, meaning parents and local authorities could go after schools and education officials who don't comply, Dudik said.

If schools violate the state administrative rule approved in 2013, it would count only against their accreditation rating.

Forty-six of the 49 states that have established bullying laws did so by 2010. Hawaii, Michigan and South Dakota were the last to make changes, leaving Montana as the only state that hasn't addressed the issue with legislation.

Julie Hertzog, director of PACER's National Bullying Prevention Center, said most state laws enforcing bullying definitions and procedures were enacted in the mid-2000s, with updates like cyberbullying provisions being added every year. She said the laws build better environments for kids to learn and mature in.

"Law really drives the policies and practices of schools," Hertzog said. She added later, "And the law sets standards so there are some consistencies between schools."

With the exception of the 2009 term, anti-bully bills have been brought before the Montana Legislature, which meets every other year, each session since 2003.

Last session, in 2013, Rep. Jean Price introduced a bill similar to Dudik's, but killed it before the measure could be considered in committee. Price, a Great Falls Democrat, said her bill could have had repercussions for the success of the anti-bullying rule that Montana Superintendent of Public Instruction Denise Juneau was in the process of enacting.

"Juneau and her staff told me not to make a fuss about it right then," Price said.

Republican lawmakers citing local control have been the primary opposition to anti-bullying provisions in Montana. Most bills died in committee along party lines.

"The floor discussion was 'We can take care of our own local communities and our own schools, and we don't need any more code to tell us what to do,' " Price said.

That argument was repeated Wednesday by Steve Meloy of the Montana School Boards Association. Meloy had intended to testify against the bill but changed his mind, he said, after hearing proponents speak.

He acted instead as an informational witness and told the committee that anti-bullying legislation superseding the existing rule was unnecessary and may inhibit schools boards from making their own decisions.

Rep. Jeff Essmann, a Billings Republican, questioned whether the Montana legislature can force a cultural change on schools. Dudik said she believes the legislature can and should spawn change to deter bullying in Montana schools by sending a message with her bill.

The committee did not take action on the measure, which faces several legislative hurdles before it could become law. Dudik said she's not sure whether it has enough support to pass.

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