New bill strengthens anti-bullying policies

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COLUMBIA — A new bill went into effect Monday, modifying anti-bullying policies in schools across Missouri.

HB 1583 is redefining bullying to include "intimidation, unwanted aggressive behavior or harassment that substantially interferes with the educational performance, opportunities or benefits of any student."

If school districts did not prohibit it before, the bill now requires schools to prohibit bullying on school property, at school functions or on school buses.

With the increase in technology present in kids' lives and in schools, cyberbullying is a prominent issue. The bill focuses on strengthening bullying policies, including where and how cyberbullying is prohibited.

It allows any school district to discipline students for cycberbullying through any sort of electronic device. Schools must also outline a specific course of action they will take when there is a report or suspicion of cyberbullying.

Cyberbullying doesn't just have to take place on school grounds or at a school activity for a school to step in. The bill allows schools to take disciplinary action against cyberbullying even if it originates off campus, as long as there is a reasonable belief it is a true threat or would disrupt the educational environment.

Columbia Public Schools communications director Michelle Baumstark said the CPS district is proactive when it comes to anti-bullying policies and is ahead of the bill's intentions.

"For Columbia Public Schools, there really aren't a lot of changes. A lot of the things included in the legislation are things we've already included in our policies here in the school district," Baumstark said.

Baumstark said CPS also already has cyberbullying policies in place, as well as programming to educate students about it, especially in middle schools.

"You really start to see it more as a trend once kids get to middle school and then it sort of fades out as they get towards the end of their educational experience," Baumstark said.

Baumstark said while the changes won't really affect Columbia's schools, it will be a "good move to have more consistency from district to district."

The bill also includes a section focused on youth suicide awareness and requires that by 2018, school districts adopt a policy toward suicide awareness to help identify possible students at-risk for suicide.