Concerns over implementation costs and oversight requirements stymied efforts to pass comprehensive anti-bullying legislation this session, but Hawaii lawmakers and advocates say they are optimistic they can resurrect the bill next year.
“I think momentum and public opinion is on our side,” said Mathew Bellhouse-King, co-chair of the political action arm of Equality Hawaii.
In 2011, more than half of high school students in Hawaii said bullying was a problem on their campus. In 2013, 18.7 percent of high school students surveyed reported personally experiencing bullying on school grounds, according to the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Things were worse for middle school students, with 44.6 percent saying they were bullied in 2013.
The state also has one of the highest rates of teen suicide attempts in the nation, Bellhouse-King said.
House Bill 819 would have created a state definition for what constitutes bullying and also listed some of the reasons for bullying, such as race, gender and sexual orientation.
This is particularly important, advocates say, when it comes to issues of sexual orientation and gender identity because the challenges facing those students can be severe and overlooked.
In addition to giving agencies a definition to work from, HB 819 would have formed a state task force to oversee bullying training and created a model bullying policy for groups and agencies to use.
The biggest change for Hawaii in the bill, however, was a requirement that any agency or entity that deals with youths and receives state or county funding would have to create a bullying policy and train staff in how to respond to bullying.
“This is clearly not something that is going to go away, and I think there is a commitment on the part of stakeholders to make changes where they are needed.” — Rep. Roy Takumi
That mandate raised a number of concerns for agencies, said Rep. Roy Takumi, who chairs the House Committee on Education. For example, Takumi said, would the Department of Labor and Industrial Relations — which works with teens as young as 16 — have to train its staff in bullying prevention?
The legislation was modified late in the session to make the law apply only to agencies that work “primarily” with youths, Takumi said, but questions remained about where the threshold for that would be and which groups would fall under the law. The bill didn’t apply to private schools, he said.
The Department of Education also expressed concern that it would wind up being responsible for making sure other agencies were in compliance with the law, Takumi said.
There was no estimate of how much it would cost to implement the bill — which was deferred when it failed to get clearance from the House and Senate money committees.
But it’s technically still alive in committee and won’t need to be reintroduced next session.
“I think these are all issues that can be resolved,” Takumi said. “This is clearly not something that is going to go away, and I think there is a commitment on the part of stakeholders to make changes where they are needed.”
What will be different moving forward?
For a start, lawmakers hope to get a revised bill to the money committees earlier in the year, so there is more time to work out the details over appropriations, said Sen. Michelle Kidani, chair of the Senate Education Committee.
Bellhouse-King said Equality Hawaii will also be looking for additional funding sources to help support training and offset implementation costs.
Kidani said lawmakers should look at having one agency, such as the Department of Education, create a uniform bullying policy that all the other agencies can adopt — instead of leaving it up to each agency to craft its own policy.
“We needed a little more time,” Kidani said. “Going forward we at least have a place to start next year.”