An order to do what lawmakers will not

After three years of battling unwilling lawmakers, Gov. Terry Branstad took another executive order plunge Monday.

The order — the 86th issued by Branstad — establishes the Governor’s Office for Bullying Prevention through the University of Northern Iowa’s Center for Violence Prevention. Branstad was clear on why he acted alone.

“We’re not waiting for the Legislature,” he said.

He might as well have singled out House Republicans, who were responsible for stalling the latest proposal. Some lawmakers objected to schools not being required to notify a victim’s parents, if school leaders believed the circumstances also would place the victim at odds with parents, perhaps opening the door to more harm.

The exception specifically was carved out for lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgendered students but would not necessarily be limited to them.

Isaac Taylor, a fifth-grader at Taylor Elementary School, talks with Gov. Terry Branstad at Arthur Elementary in Cedar Rapids this past Monday.
Isaac Taylor, a fifth-grader at Taylor Elementary School, talks with Gov. Terry Branstad at Arthur Elementary in Cedar Rapids this past Monday. (Cliff Jette/The Gazette)

The order establishes a 24-hotline for students who feel bullied at school and training for schools on anti-bullying policy and complaint investigation. It also tasks the Iowa Department of Education with developing parental notification procedures as well as cyberbullying guidelines.

A working group will hash out how a bullying victim can change schools or districts without losing athletic or other extracurricular participation, and the new office at UNI will establish a student mentoring initiative and also will become the state’s hub for bullying data.

None of these ideas are new, having been part of Branstad’s previously failed legislative proposals.

Still, two remaining and possibly thorny issues exist:

First, the governor said the new office will be paid for with existing funding, and that he will request additional future funding. No other clues have been given regarding the origin of the existing funding, and there are no assurances that lawmakers, now effectively usurped, will fund a program they had little hand in crafting.

If the funding is part of the money originally earmarked by lawmakers for the two now shuttered mental health institutes, freed up through a Branstad line-item veto, there could be problems. Those closures are working their way through the courts, which could take exception to the executive branch spending ill-gotten gains.

Second, and as Iowans know all too well, executive orders aren’t forever. They exist at the whim of the executive branch, and can be negated by subsequent administrations.

Branstad’s first order of business upon reclaiming Terrace Hill, for instance, was to reverse an executive order by former Gov. Tom Vilsack that automatically restored felon voting rights. The situation led to confusion, with some felons being told at their sentencing they could legally vote once their debt was paid, only to have Iowa’s law change in the interim.

Since 2007, Iowa school districts have been tasked by law with collecting and providing data on bullying to the Department of Education. But information received has been incomplete, frustrating efforts to ferret out details of where, when and how bullying occurs.

The only thing worse than the existing situation would be for this order to establish a new scope or process that later is dismantled by a future administration, leaving any such gathered data adrift or lost.

Lawmakers, who have long said they favor additional efforts to combat bullying, need to put actions behind their words. Branstad’s plan may not be ideal, but it is a start.

This column by Lynda Waddington originally published in The Gazette on October 4, 2015. Photo credit: Cliff Jette/The Gazette