New anti-bullying policy creating concern in Columbia Public Schools

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COLUMBIA — The Columbia Board of Education approved a new statewide anti-bullying policy Monday, but some people are having second thoughts.

The board approved the policy by a vote of 3-1. Board President Jim Whitt chose to abstain from the voting process.

Paul Cushing was the only board member to vote "no" on the policy.

"My biggest concern is for our employees out in the district. If they don't report it in a timely matter, now suddenly they are under the scrutiny of the law and there's no getting around it," Cushing said. 

The new policy is a state-mandated policy all public schools in Missouri have to adopt by next year. The policy requires district employees to report any bullying incident within two school days of witnessing the event. An investigation by the principal should then be completed within ten school days of when the incident was first reported to determine whether or not bullying took place.

Students are also encouraged to report an incident within two days.

District employees who fail to report within two school days face disciplinary action or expulsion.

"It's important for us to really look closely at how we're handling things like this. We can no longer rely on our teachers and principals to interface with parents to do what we should do in that respect. We're essentially creating reporting that goes all the way back to the district office on any incident," Cushing said.

Board Vice President Jonathan Sessions said he reluctantly voted "yes" on the issue.

"It is a policy that was designed to protect students. However, this has happened very quickly, and there are some big concerns about the way the law is written," Sessions said. 

He said the definition of bullying under the new law is too much aligned with the definition of felony harassment.

Session said class A misdemeanors will turn into class E felony harassment starting Jan. 1 due to changes in the state criminal code.

"While bullying is absolutely unacceptable in my eyes, I do not feel a poorly written state law should brand a student with a felony because of poor choices made while that student was an adolescent," Sessions said.

Sessions said the board will end up passing the policy at the next board meeting because it is state law, and the district would have issues with insurance if it did not pass.