Bills addressing bullying, student discipline progressing through Wyoming Senate

Two bill proposals intended to address student discipline and bullying in K-12 schools were approved on second reading Thursday in the Wyoming Senate.

Senate File 48 requires the state to develop “model rules and policies for student discipline, including suspension and expulsion,” while Senate File 49 clarifies that anti-bullying rules apply to school employees, administrators, and volunteers in addition to students.

The Senate Education Committee approved both bills Wednesday.

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Student discipline

Donna Sheen with the Wyoming Children’s Law Center expressed support for Senate File 48 during the committee meeting, noting that Wyoming’s current suspension and expulsion statute “gives school districts very broad discretion” about the ways that they apply the law.

“It’s so broad, in fact, that it essentially eliminates a parent’s ability to exercise their due process to challenge that (discretion) when they feel it’s being used inappropriately,” Sheen said.

Her organization “frequently hears from parents” who say that their school administrators apply disciplinary measures incorrectly, Sheen said, and “I usually have to tell them that the law essentially makes it merely impossible to challenge that decision, because there is no structure in place to determine what is and isn’t appropriate.”

Local school districts would not be required to adopt the model policy envisioned in Senate File 48, Sheen pointed out, but they could use it as a “guide” – and parents could use it to “compare the situation” at their local school district to the “standard.”

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Exclusionary discipline

Sheen called Senate File 48 an “excellent first step to help us identify where problems exist in the overuse of exclusionary discipline or the inappropriate use (of discipline).”

“Exclusionary discipline has been extensively studied, and it doesn’t work – it doesn’t improve school safety,” Sheen said. “The use of (it) can actually heighten the safety risks in that school because it creates a negative, punishment-oriented model that oftentimes will create the environment where children act out.

“It also increases the likelihood of negative life outcomes for that child.”

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After hearing Sheen’s testimony, Kathy Scigliano with the Laramie County chapter of Moms for Liberty said she felt “compelled” to speak as well, expressing concern that Senate File 48 might make school districts hesitate to “expel or suspend students that have had multiple behavior issues.”

“I think there should be consequences,” Scigliano said, recalling the 2018 school shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Florida.

The shooter in that case had recorded “multiple infractions” at school previously, Scigliano said, but administrators “did nothing about it.”

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“I definitely do not want to see that happen here,” she said. “They need to have consequences.”

Wyoming Sen. Chris Rothfuss, D-Laramie, responded to Scigliano’s comments before the Senate Education Committee voted to approve the bill, noting that “a lot” of what she said “was part of the discussion” the committee had over the past several months.

“The idea of providing guidance and best practices … is largely motivated by the concerns that were expressed,” he said. “Many districts aren’t using policies that work. And a good first step in (addressing that) is to figure out what policies do work, by bringing together experts in the space and having meetings and really trying to track that down … then use that information to build a model set of guidelines that either can or don’t have to be used.”

Bullying

Wyoming Sen. Affie Ellis, R-Cheyenne, presented the committee with information about Senate File 49, which was created after she received multiple complaints from constituents who said a local coach was bullying their students.

“(The students) were actually being harassed by their coach and retaliated against when their parents spoke up,” she said.

When the parents and guardians tried to find out what actions the school district was taking to address the situation, Ellis said they “received very little” information due to privacy laws that are in place to protect public employees.

“There was a mysterious investigation that proceeded, (with) not a lot of light on what happened at the end,” she said. “Did he get disciplined? Was there ever any action taken? Can I feel better as a parent about trusting this individual with my child? That’s a black hole.”

Initially, Ellis said she had wanted to try to “provide some more transparency” to people looking for information about disciplinary actions taken against school employees accused of bullying, but “those discussions really produced no legislation.”

Instead, she said, legislators created Senate File 49 in an attempt to “at least acknowledge” that Wyoming’s anti-bullying statutes apply to school employees as well as students.

“That’s really the impetus for this bill,” she said. “It tries to make clear that no person … shall engage in bullying.”

Oversight

Scigliano weighed in on Senate File 49 as well, asking lawmakers to ensure that “bullying” and other similar terms are thoroughly defined in statute and suggesting that some accountability measures should be included in the legislation.

“Things like this get lost in the shuffle (and) swept under the rug,” she said. “Districts will under-report issues because they know it will make their schools look bad. …

“It’s great to have policy and procedure – we just need to make sure it’s being followed.”

“I think we’re all amenable to that,” Wyoming Sen. Cheri Steinmetz, R-Lingle, replied. “As we continue to work together with your newly formed group, I think that we can make some headway on these issues.”

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