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UNI Center for Violence Prevention

CEDAR FALLS — Six months after it was created, the governor’s anti-bullying office already has helped produce legislation that soon will become law, helping bullied Iowa students who transfer schools and wish to participate in extra-curricular activities.

The office’s director hopes it can continue to make an impact but says accomplishing some of its goals will require state funding that is not yet in the pipeline.

After three years of pushing anti-bullying measures that never passed the Iowa Legislature, Gov. Terry Branstad in September 2015 struck out on his own, creating via executive order the Governor’s Office for Bullying Prevention, housed within the University of Northern Iowa’s Center for Violence Prevention at 309 Sabin Hall on campus.

The center’s director, Alan Heisterkamp, was tapped to head the anti-bullying office. Heisterkamp previously worked with the Waitt Institute for Violence Prevention, and before that, he spent 22 years in various roles with the Sioux City Community School District.

Heisterkamp and the office’s charges:

Provide anti-bullying training for educators.

Develop a uniform bullying incident reporting procedure.

Collect data on bullying incidents.

Develop guidelines for schools to address online bullying.

Heisterkamp already has set out to accomplish some of those goals and has even crossed another off the governor’s checklist. Legislation working its way through the Capitol with widespread bipartisan support would allow bullied students who transfer schools to immediately play sports or participate in other extra-curricular activities. Currently, transfer students must sit out a prescribed amount of time before participating.

Heisterkamp cautioned, however, that achieving some of the other goals set out by the governor’s executive order will require more resources. Heisterkamp has requested $250,000 to fund two full-time staff members.

“Right now, my plate is full,” Heisterkamp said. “What we (at the center) are doing is supporting, kind of serving as a landing pad for the governor’s office.”

Branstad did not specify funding for the office, saying it would be up to the Board of Regents to determine whether to fund the office within its budget.

A spokesman for the Regents said the board has not yet made any spending plans as it awaits state funding.

Heisterkamp said he also has spoken to lawmakers about securing funding, although he has received no promises.

“Why don’t we value the social and emotional pieces (of a student’s education) just as much?” Heisterkamp asked. “I think we can do that, but we need some bottom-line resources to create that.”

Meantime, Heisterkamp said he will do what he can without funding.

One of his hopes is to encourage more schools to use an anti-bullying program he implemented in Sioux City in 2001 shortly after the shooting at a high school in Columbine, Colo. Heisterkamp said one problem with bullying is too few schools have programs or curriculum that address the issue.

Mentors in Violence Prevention, or MVP, trains students to mentor each other — typically older students mentoring younger students — about violence and bullying. Some Iowa schools already use the program.

“Coming from the kids, it’s more powerful than coming from the adults,” said Susan Langan, a counselor at Cedar Falls High School, which has roughly 80 students in its MVP program. “That’s where it’s been powerful, and I hope it gets even more powerful.”

Langan and Heisterkamp praised the student leaders who volunteer to serve as mentors in the program.

“That is done specifically and is aimed specifically to utilize the influence and leadership of students in high school that can send the same message that an adult can but it lands differently on youngsters’ ears, so to speak,” Heisterkamp said.

“These 17- and 18-year-old high school students that are mentors, they’re just amazing,” he said. “In that process, they really become student ambassadors for positive school culture and healthy relationships. The younger students look up to these (older) students. They see them as resources.”

Branstad lauded student mentoring programs, including the MVP-inspired ones in Sioux City and Cedar Falls. Those programs were a key element of the legislation he had hoped to sign into law.

“A lot of schools have really stepped forward on their own, and a lot of students are learning how they can stand up to bullies and how they can be effective mentors,” Branstad said.

Langan cautioned the MVP program is not a cure-all.

“Some days, I think it’s working, and some days I think it’s not,” she said. But she thinks at the very least it has created a conversation and made it easier for students to talk about and stand up to bullying.

“I think what MVP has done is it has given kids the courage to stand up and say, ‘You know what? That’s not OK,’” Langan said.

Heisterkamp said he also hopes to establish an advisory board comprised of stakeholders — administrators, teachers, students, parents — to sustain an ongoing discussion of bullying issues and make recommendations to the anti-bullying office.

“It’s an important part of education, and it’s just overdue. It needs to be taken seriously,” Heisterkamp said. “Some people get that and others don’t, so it’s about educating everybody: legislators, parents, community leaders, school staff. …

“You know who gets this a lot, are law enforcement and juvenile court. They see, with a little more focus on prevention we could prevent a lot of expenses, a lot of heartache, a lot of trauma,” he said. “It’s not our job (as educators) entirely, but it’s something we are skilled enough to do.”

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State house reporter for The Courier/Lee Enterprises.

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