In 2018, the Utah State Board of Education adopted rule R-277-613, which addresses how school districts handle bullying. The language is now under scrutiny, and there may be changes coming that eliminates language that protects students based on race, ethnicity and sexual orientation.
Utah State Board of Education member Scott Hansen, a Utah attorney, submitted changes in 2019 to the anti-bullying language in state board rule 277-613. In January, Hansen told KPCW he rescinded his suggested changes, which redlined certain civil rights definitions and district reporting requirements. However, changes to professional training content have been kept by the rules committee and will be finalized in the school board’s meeting on Feb. 7.
A watchdog group following the issue claims the proposed changes do not include input from educators, administrators or those protected groups who are impacted by the rule changes. They would like to see the rule left as written in 2018.
State Sen. Jacob Anderegg, a republican from Lehi, invited an attorney from the Pacific Justice Institute to evaluate the bullying rule. Anderegg feels the policy should protect First Amendment rights and is concerned the rules are not grounded in law but left to interpretation.
“The question is what are the standards? What are the internal policies that this rule creates and how does an individual who attends a public school know whether or not they are in violation of this policy? And so, honestly because of the vagueness it could be interpreted across the board therefore the rule itself has entered a level of ambiguity that has gone beyond the scope of what the original legislation had intended."
Anderegg says he does not want to put children at risk for bullying at school but is concerned about the vague language in the existing rule.
“Am I trying to find a way so that kids can bully? No. The intent is to make sure that we have a safe environment but on the same account the policy should also be said that we are still protecting 1st Amendment rights and who's calling the balls or strikes?"
Chief Council Kevin Snider with the Pacific Justice Institute practices constitutional law with an emphasis on K-12 public school law. Snider says he empathizes with students who experience bullying, but after reviewing the bullying rule, he shared his thoughts with the school board.
“I'm compelled to put into the record, and for your consideration certain concerns. And I have three such concerns and these are the right to expressive association, free speech and the problem of vagueness and by vagueness the question is when does a person know when they’ve passed from the lawful to the unlawful.”
The Pacific Justice Institute, according to their website, defends religious freedoms, parental rights, and other civil liberties without charge. The Southern Poverty Law Center, a civil rights advocacy group that fights against racial and social injustice, has designated the Pacific Justice Institute as a hate group.
According to Ben Rasmussen, the school board’s director of law and professional practices, the board has been working on revising the rule for a couple of years. He says when a state agency makes a rule, the legislature can flex their muscle and ask for changes.
The proposed amendments to R 277-613 will be heard in the State Board of Education Law and Licensing Committee on Friday, Feb. 7 at 1 p.m. The education office is located at 250 E. 500 South in Salt Lake City. Anyone interested in giving input can attend.