Iowa Youth Join State to Implement Public Resources to Fight Bullying

November 15, 2013

In Iowa, the state’s approach to preventing cyberbullying and its impact on young lives got a big boost when young people took up the cause. It began with a student who shared a deeply personal story as part of her plea for better policies.

During the October 2012 Iowa Youth Congress—an annual gathering that brings 100 Iowa high school to the Capitol to debate and vote on bills drafted by Youth Congress members that address priorities for youth across the state—cyberbullying was one item on the agenda. But the related bill, written by IYC member Aditi Dinakar, was not likely to pass, overshadowed by other issues before the mock Congress.

That is, until one teen’s testimony changed the perspective. She shared the story of her troubled little sister, who was taunted by bullies in person and online, during and outside of school hours. Although only in middle school, her sister had already been flagged as suicidal more than once. In fact, on the same day as the mock Congress, her little sister had had a cup of ketchup dumped on her head, and left school to go to her mother’s office, ashamed and wanting to never return to school. 

This testimony, coupled with growing data on the prevalence of cyberbullying statewide, made it clear to the youth in the room that the state needed better cyberbullying prevention policies. That afternoon, the cyberbullying bill passed the Youth Congress.

Amending the current Iowa bullying law, the Youth Congress bill gave schools permission to address instances of cyberbullying among students even off campus, including through students’ personal social media and texts. (Under current law, school officials do not have the authority to intervene).

The three bills that are passed each year during the Iowa Youth Congress help determine the priorities for the State of Iowa Youth Advisory Council (SIYAC), a nonpartisan council of 21 Iowa youth ages 14 to 20 who advise state legislators, state department leaders, city leaders and the governor. SIYAC and IYC members works with community leaders and policymakers to encourage these bills to become real-life legislation taken up by Iowa’s legislature.

Almost immediately, IYC partnered with SIYAC and began advocating for the cyberbullying bill to become real legislation taken up by the State Legislature for implementation across Iowa—and sharing the young student’s testimony in the process.  Rep. Bruce Hunter (D) signed on to co-sponsor the legislation and, after combining it with other similar bullying bills, took it to the Iowa House of Representatives in 2013 as HSB 196. The bill passed out of committee, but did not pass the full Legislature.

The bill, embraced and adjusted by the Committee on Education and re-introduced as HSF 593, is set to be voted on in the next Iowa state legislative session, which starts in January 2014.

The legislation continues to be supported by Governor Terry Branstad (R), Rep. Hunter and other lawmakers in the House. Gov. Branstad, who helped jumpstart this work at his annual state Bullying Prevention Summit on bullying, said he will work to get a bill passed in 2014 because he “ want[s] kids to feel safe.”

Your Life Iowa

To address cyberbullying immediately, while the legislative process is underway, the Iowa Legislature appropriated funding to the Iowa Department of Public Health to initiate a statewide project, and they approached SIYAC to provide the youth perspective and feedback.  

Your Life Iowa,launched in 2012, includes a 12-hour hotline with phone chat and texting features, as well as a resource website for those who are affected by bullying and/or have thoughts of suicide. This “go-to” resource staffed by trained counselors is designed to give youth, professionals, and parents information about bullying and suicide—including their legal rights and responsibilities.

Early in the process, the Department of Public Health approached SIYAC to help shape the hotline and ensure the services are well-designed for and accessible to Iowa’s youth.

Together with the youth-service organization Boys Town, SIYAC is an official partner in the Your Life Iowa project. SIYAC has presented the idea to youth groups, schools, nonprofits and businesses across the state to collect and share critical feedback. Members also helped create promotional videos and materials aimed at Iowa teens to raise awareness of the resource and encourage teens to use and share it. 

 “We are proud of joining the effort to spread awareness of the hotline as a resource for the victims of bullying, and their teachers and parents,” says SIYAC Chair Pablo Haake.  “Bullying has become a critical issue for us youth in Iowa, and we hope this partnership with Your Life Iowa can contribute to finally addressing them."

About the Iowa Youth Congress and State of Iowa Youth Advisory Council

The State of Iowa Youth Advisory Council is a nonpartisan policy-advisory organization overseen by the Iowa Department of Human Rights consisting of up to 21 youth from across the state.  Governor Vilsack established SIYAC in 2000 as an informal way in which youth could communicate with state leaders and inform legislative decisions.  In 2009, the Legislature formalized SIYAC in Iowa Code Section 216A.140. SIYAC not only provides youth with access to state government, but it also serves to provide state agencies and legislators easy access to youth from across the state who are well-informed about what works in the eyes of Iowa's young people. 

SIYAC’smembers are young people between the ages of 14 and 20 from across Iowa. Youth selected to serve Iowa as a member of SIYAC reflect the positive differences throughout the state and among its young people. The council strives to be representative of all Iowa youth. Each year SIYAC brings a fresh perspective to their policy work to formulate their specific legislative initiatives.  Click here to learn more.

 

The Iowa Youth Congress (IYC)

The Iowa Youth Congress brings students from across the state to discuss issues that affect youth. Students from each region brainstorm and discuss ideas they would like to see become new laws, or changes to current laws. After talking about these ideas in regional meetings, students decide what they will present at the annual all-student gathering in Des Moines. The representatives convene in the Iowa House Chambers at the Capitol. They propose, debate and pass three or more bills each year. Iowa Youth Congress models itself after the Iowa House of Representatives and accepts up to 100 high school participants each year.


This snapshot is part of SparkAction's Youth Impact series, short profiles of youth councils and commissions that are influencing local and state policies and practices. SparkAction is producing this series in partnership with the youth-led Campaign for a Presidential Youth Council and with support from the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation.

To suggest an impact story, please contact Caitlin Johnson, managing editor, at caitlin@sparkaction.org.