Washington legislation adding 'emotional harm' to state's anti-bullying statute won't advance after SPLC, others raise concerns

WASHINGTON — A bill that would have added the term “emotional harm” to Washington’s anti-bullying statute will not make its way out of committee, the bill’s primary supporter said.

The state already has a law to combat bullying, but Sen. Marko Liias, a Democrat, said it’s important that psychological distress and online bullying be addressed in schools’ policies. The bill would have also required districts to employ a “primary contact” on harassment and cyberbullying.

Liias said he plans on updating and reintroducing similar legislation in the future.

“The bulk of what the bill did is that it updated our definition of bullying to include ‘emotional harm,’ and I think some of the committee members in the House wanted to take some more time to understand if that created additional legal liabilities for districts,” Liias said. “So that’s what we’ll be working on is studying that issue and getting some answers over the course of the next few months.”

The House Education Committee last considering the bill returned it to a Senate rules committee last week, effectively killing the bill this session. During a public hearing in February, many committee members expressed concern about the broadness of a term like “emotional harm.”

“If you look hard enough, you usually see the root cause (of suicide) is some kind of emotional bullying, so I’m a big supporter of this concept,” said State Rep. Chad Magendanz, a Republican on the committee, at the hearing. “I’m a little worried, though. … Nowhere do we actually define emotional harm.”

The big bone of contention was how much of a legal impact the words “emotional harm” could have on school districts. Officials might have a greater deal of legal accountability under the proposed law, committee members said.

Liias said in an interview that he, for the most part, does not understand these concerns.

“You know, this is a broad policy statement, so I don’t understand their concerns,” Liias said. “If this was a criminal law where someone was going to go to jail or pay a huge fine, then you want to be really, really precise with what exactly is the crime so we’re not taking away someone’s liberty.”

The Student Press Law Center submitted testimony that argued the opposite, warning the committee that this proposal could intrude on students’ constitutional rights.

“Discipline is the wrong response to uncivil speech,” SPLC’s testimony said. “The disciplinary system in many (if not most) schools already is dysfunctional, with no meaningful opportunity for a wrongfully accused student to clear her name and well-documented racial inequities. The first generation of ‘punishment-first’ legislative approaches to cyberbullying has been discredited by experience and academic study.”

Liias does not believe that the legislation would have invited administrative overreactions to accusations of bullying. These instances are always investigated and don’t typically result in heavy sanctions, he said.

“Just because the policy says you shouldn’t emotionally bully your fellow students doesn’t mean that every single time somebody feels upset that that’s a bullying claim. There’s got to be a pattern,” Liias said. “We trust that our principals and teachers are going to be doing a good job of making sure that the kid that feels like they’re the victim of bullying has rights, as well as the person that’s being accused of it.”

Linda Mangel, the education policy director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Washington, said last month that her organization supported the legislation “on balance,” but understood that some people might want to more narrowly define “emotional harm.”

The Washington School Directors Association also had a mixed reaction to the legislation, and had submitted a “whole list of amendments,” said Marie Sullivan, the group’s government relations director. The organization was more concerned about funding training exercises for the schools’ harassment contacts, as well as policy implementation, but Sullivan acknowledged that it would be “difficult” to come to a consensus on what emotional bullying exactly means.

Liias, though, said adding clarity to the definition of the word “emotional” will not change the proposal in any “revolutionary way,” and it’s more important that administrators stop bullying. Bullying and cyberbullying — in Washington and nationwide — have driven children to “take their lives,” he said.

“It’s not this punitive tool that’s being used to go after students using their free-speech rights,” Liias said.

By Rex Santus, SPLC staff writer. Contact Santus by email or at (703) 807-1904 ext. 119.