COLUMBIA, Mo. - Despite concerns from board members, the Columbia Public Schools Board of Education approved an anti-bullying policy Monday night.
The 5-2 vote mandates that school employees report any knowledge of bullying incidents to the school's principal within two days. A Missouri law passed last session require school districts across the state to come up with similar rules on handling bullying, defined as "intimidation or harassment" that "substantially interferes with the educational performance, opportunities, or benefits of any student without exception; or substantially disrupts the orderly operation of the school."
Superintendent Peter Stiepleman said the district has trained principals on how to handle and investigate the reports it may receive. The district also partnered with EdCounsel, a local law firm that specializes in legal work with schools, to craft the new policy and handle the training.
Members of the board, public and district all expressed frustration at the law's perceived conflict with criminal law that may open up students to felony charges. The crime of "first-degree harassment," a class E felony, appears similar to the definition of bullying, Stiepleman said, but the district needed to come up with some rules to remain compliant with the state.
Board members Jim Whitt and Paul Cushing voted against the measure. Whitt, the current board president, told ABC 17 News he opposed the underlying state laws and their vague definitions of harassment and bullying rather than the policy district staff put together.
"When there's vagueness out there, the people that are impacted the most are our poorer, minority members of our community," Whitt said. "Because they, traditionally, don't have the resources to fight against this."
The district is also trying to address its high rate of minority contact with the juvenile justice system. Speakers felt the new criminal law could exacerbate that problem. While CPS has a memorandum of understanding with Columbia police and the juvenile court system in Boone County, it does not include handling reports of harassment within the school district. That means school officials would have to directly report felony cases of harassment to law enforcement for investigation.