Like so many other social challenges in Western culture these days, our understanding of student-on-student bullying, its causes and its effects has increased dramatically in recent years.

In part, that understanding is the costly byproduct of efforts to make sense of numerous tragedies nationwide involving school violence, from the Columbine, Colorado, shootings to a seemingly endless string of bullying-related injuries and suicides. Federal statistics show that bullying affects about one-third of all school-age kids nationwide; schools, students, parents and government agencies are more sensitive than ever before to the destructive effects and are doing more to address them.

At the federal level, President Obama upped the ante four years ago by hosting the first White House conference on bullying and launched the StopBullying.gov website, a collaboration of the U.S. departments of Education, Health and Human Services and Justice meant to widely disseminate information on bullying awareness and prevention. Last year, the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the U.S. Health and Human Services Department released their first uniform definition of bullying to guide surveillance and research efforts on the subject.

Girls Bullying

Nationally, about one in every three students are victimized by physical or online bullying. Hawaii students experience those issues at a greater rate than the national average.

Twentyfour Students via Flickr

Private organizations have joined the fight with new vigor. Groups like the Trevor Project and the National Bullying Prevention Center and many more have leveraged greater public focus on the problem, often enlisting high-profile corporate and celebrity supporters in their work to create a culture of consensus around bullying prevention.

All of that is vital to responding effectively to the persistent, pernicious effects of physical and online bullying, which in many ways, are more pronounced in Hawaii.

Despite some improvement in recent years, Hawaii boys are still more likely to be bullied on school property or online than the national average, according to annual data collected by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control.

Hawaii boys and girls are also more likely than the national average to skip school due to personal safety concerns. And they are not only more likely to consider and make a plan to commit suicide, but to actually attempt to kill themselves.

The Hawaii Department of Education and schools have sharpened their focus on bullying in recent years, including piloting the critically acclaimed No Bully program on multiple school campuses.

But from the Board of Education to teachers to students, many voices say more needs to be done. In fact, a survey of Hawaii voters released last year, showed that 92 percent of respondents felt bullying was an important issue requiring new government response, perhaps because so many respondents also said they had personally experienced bullying or knew others who had been bullied.

Clues as to what that government response ought to be may be found in a review of the StopBullying.gov page on Hawaii laws and policies. It notes that our state doesn’t have a model bullying policy, that state law does not enumerate characteristics upon which bullying isn’t permitted and doesn’t make bullying victims aware they may seek legal remedies beyond those available under DOE policy.

Defining Bullying for Schools, Youth-Serving Agencies

House Bill 819 would change the way that Hawaii approaches this problem. First, it would codify a bullying definition that would include the widely accepted characteristics upon which most bullying takes place – race, ethnicity, religious affiliation, gender, sexual orientation and gender identity and others commonly represented in federal law. Most states have laws that include enumerated categories, which leaves Hawaii out of step with the bullying prevention practices of its peers.

Second, it would extend that definition not only to public schools, including charters, but to any agency or entity that serves youth and receives state or county funding. Such a uniform approach is essential to create a standard for students that is consistent across classrooms, after-school centers or other publicly supported programs.

The bill would further create a gubernatorial task force, with broad representation from education, mental health, community and faith organizations, to create a model bullying policy and would require annual anti-bullying training for educators and youth-serving staff. The gubernatorial task force would also be responsible for promulgating free and reduced cost training opportunities, to mitigate budget impacts.

The state House of Representatives passed the measure last month with only a single “no” vote and, on crossover, it has already sailed through the Senate Committee on Education. It need only clear a joint referral to the Senate Judiciary and Ways and Means committees to move to the full Senate. Gov. David Ige’s administration is said to be on board, having expressed support for the measure dating back to the gubernatorial race last fall.

It should also be noted that the measure has earned strong support from influential education, civil rights, law enforcement and children’s advocacy organizations, including the Hawaii State Teachers Association, the Hawaii Youth Services Network, the Honolulu Police Department, the Hawaii Civil Rights Commission and Community Children’s Council of Hawaii.

HB819 won’t entirely solve Hawaii’s bullying challenges. But it will ensure that schools and organizations serving youth are pulling in the same direction, training staff to intervene effectively and responding to bullying incidents in consistent, uniform ways. It’s a step in the right direction, and we encourage the Senate and Gov. Ige to complete the final steps to make it law.

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