Caven Wade

(UM Legislative News Service) Stacy Roope says her 16-year-old son Trey is bullied every day in the hallways and even while walking to school. She said her son is constantly tormented, and what’s worse is that he isn’t able to defend himself. 

“Trey is not afraid of the kids who bully him, but in the back of his mind he’s always thinking about what’s going to happen today,” Roope said. “It’s an emotional roller coaster that happens to him everyday, one day he could walk to the school with no issues, the next day he’s getting slammed into the lockers.”

Roope, of Helena, said bullying has left her child feeling depressed and isolated during what should be key years of growth in his life. She said right now, parents of bullies and school officials aren’t doing enough.

That’s why Roope said she supports a bill moving through the Montana Legislature that would allow students who are being bullied to fight back in self-defense without repercussions from the school.

“A lot of kids who want to go to school and do a good job are unable to. They are battling daily with the bullies. Because of the bullying they are unable to function in a class setting, kids withdraw themselves from activities that they should be able to go to at any age level because they’re not comfortable when the school takes them out,” Roope said. “Frankly they don’t understand why they are the ones being bullied. They become suicidal and if that doesn’t pull at your heart strings then what does?” 

House Bill 450, sponsored by Rep. Jedediah Hinkle, R-Belgrade, passed the House of Representatives on a party-line vote 69-27 on March 1, and was transferred over to the Senate Judiciary Committee. Following a 7-4 vote in that committee on Thursday, March 16, HB 450 now goes to the full Senate for debate, where it then could be sent to the governor's desk.

“It’s a bill to protect the right to self defense in a school setting. Currently, many schools employ a ‘zero tolerance policy’ when it comes to physical fighting or force on school grounds or school-sanctioned events,” Hinkle said. “This means that if one student attacks another student, say throw them against the locker and proceed to pummel the student with their fists, if the student who has been attacked fights back they will both be disciplined.”

Hinkle said the state’s policy of dealing with students who defend themselves is unjust because it punishes bullies and those being bullied equally. He also questioned several schools' implementation of the state's anti-bullying policy, and said that self-defense is a right that all students should have.

“From the dawn of humankind, people have naturally been defending themselves from attack, and I believe the right to self defense is an inherent natural right that a school should not have the authority to strip away,” Hinkle said during the bill’s hearing in the Senate Judiciary hearing last week.

Roope was one of several parents at the hearing sharing stories about their children being bullied and discussing how they wished their child was able to fight back in situations. 

Trina Fortney, another parent testifying on behalf of their child, spoke about her child being bullied his senior year in high school in Bozeman.

“Our child had begun to be bullied by another student, unfortunately it became a situation where the bullying escalated to more of a gang mentality where more than one child would gang up and threaten him,” Fortney said.

Fortney said that her family went through all the school procedures to try to get their son help, but to no real avail. She then asked the school about the possibility of her son being able to defend himself under these circumstances and said the school told her he would be suspended if he fought back.

Meanwhile, opponents of HB 450 say that while the legislation brings up a valuable discussion about bullying, it misses the mark when it comes to real solutions.

Rob Watson, representing the School Administrators in Montana, opposes HB 450 and said the bill is not an anti-bullying bill and called it an overreach by the Legislature.

“The bill itself uses [Montana Code] 20-5-209 which is a real simple law that describes that bullying is not permitted in K through 12 schools. Unfortunately, then the bill goes on to describe use of physical force, and in my experience, use of physical force is not always a bullying issue,” Watson said.

Watson said he agrees that bullying does occasionally lead to physical force, but that the actions described in the bill are not a bullying issue that public schools face. He said physical force in schools is most commonly related to fights between two students, and not bullying itself.

He said physical altercations of any kind can’t be condoned because they are disruptive to the school environment and damaging to other students' ability to learn at the institution. They are also detrimental to a “safe school environment” that public schools and administrators encourage, Watson said.

“School safety is one of those basic issues. When kids go to school and they don’t feel safe, it's very difficult to learn. Physical altercations definitely have an impact on school safety,” Watson said. “For the individual student, we generally discourage students from participating in physical altercations.”

Watson said it is often forgotten that condoning or allowing students to take action in fights can lead to real injuries both physically and mentally.

Sarah Piper, representing the Montana Federation of Public Employees, also spoke against the bill and shared similar concerns as Watson’s.

Piper said her heart breaks as a former teacher when hearing the stories from parents and students about being bullied, but the bill attempts to solve a problem in a way that it can’t accomplish.

“Many of the things heard today would be better solved by exactly what some of the proponents mentioned: More resources officers, more counseling support. Schools have brought in programs that are about upstanding, as they say, instead of bystanding in these situations, not in a physical way, but to make sure that students don’t get to a point where physical violence feels like the only solution,” Piper said.

She said students need to be taught de-escalation techniques sooner in schools, but it can be extremely difficult to make young kids understand why they should go play in a different area or walk away from uncomfortable situations.

Piper said the bill gives no real solution and just makes it so that if you’re hit you can hit back. She said that fighting violence with violence is not a real solution and will just escalate most situations in a school setting.

“Discipline policy is established by local school boards who are elected by members of their communities. We strongly believe that's where these policies should be adopted, not by legislative overreach into the authority that is vested with the school boards,” Piper said.

The bill is one of several at the Legislature that seek to put more statewide policy into the school system, such as, House Bill 744, which would allow students and teachers to openly discuss religious beliefs, House Bill 745, which deals with religious texts and prayer in schools, and House Bill 502, which clarifies earlier legislation requiring parental notification of sex ed materials. 

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