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Sen. Nicole Poolman

Sen. Nicole Poolman, R-Bismarck, was a co-sponsor to Senate Bill 2251 during the last legislative session in 2017. The bill's goal was to give child protective services the ability to intervene with the services and treatment for moms with substance-exposed newborns, helping get them to treatment and create safe care plans for the baby and other kids at home. 

A North Dakota senator has proposed a bill that would revise the state's current anti-bullying law, which she said is "dated" and doesn't take into account where a majority of bullying takes place: online.

Sen. Nicole Poolman, R-Bismarck, has introduced Senate Bill 2181, which would prohibit cyberbullying. The state's current anti-bullying law only covers bullying that takes place at school or on school grounds.

At a hearing on Wednesday before the Senate Education Committee, the bill drew support from the North Dakota Council of Educational Leaders and the state School Boards Association.

However, one lawmaker on the committee and an attorney with the School Boards Association expressed concerns that the bill could increase a school district's liability risk or could infringe upon students' free speech rights.

As a teacher in Bismarck and a parent, Poolman said she has firsthand knowledge of the effects of cyberbullying on children. She drafted her bill after hearing concerns from parents in the Bismarck area about increasing incidents of cyberbullying.

"The problem with the bullying law currently is it only pertained to bullying that took place at school or school grounds, and obviously a majority of online bullying is not sent or received on school grounds," Poolman said.

Aimee Copas, executive director of the North Dakota Council of Educational Leaders, spoke in favor of the bill at Wednesday's committee hearing. Copas said most districts already investigate reports of cyberbullying, but the bill would provide clarity to districts.

"What we've heard is that, in some instances, schools were a little uncomfortable or unsure of their jurisdiction with regard to things that happen outside of school hours on equipment that may not be school equipment," Copas said.

She said her organization supports amending the bill to require incidents of cyberbullying be reported to school officials.

Sen. David Rust, R-Tioga, a member of the Senate Education Committee, said he has "serious reservations" about the bill, saying that it could open up "a whole new world" where school districts could be made to be at fault in incidents of cyberbullying.

Copas and Poolman pointed out that there's already a section in the state's anti-bullying law that provides civil and criminal immunity to school districts if they have a bullying policy in place and are following it.

"Making sure there's a liability exclusion is critical to this nature, because it is impossible for our schools to be omniscient and to stop everything," Copas said.

Committee chairman Sen. Donald Schaible, R-Mott, asked Copas how school administrators investigate a complaint of cyberbullying outside of school. Copas said administrators can request to look at a student's phone, for example, during school hours, even if the conduct may have happened outside of school.

But students don't have to comply, and, at that point, local law enforcement is typically involved in the investigation, Copas said.

"Rather than throwing up our hands and saying,'Oh, it happened outside of school, we can't touch it,' well, now we're going to take it a step further and say we need to help with this investigation in any way that we can and partner with our local law enforcement," she said.

Amy De Kok, legal counsel for the North Dakota School Boards Association, said her organization supports the bill but has some reservations.

"I receive calls frequently about how and if schools can regulate this off-campus conduct," she said. "However ... we do have some concerns with the proposed bill language, because there is a risk of liability for schools if they are disciplining a student for off-campus conduct that's non-school-related speech."

De Kok told the committee the U.S. Supreme Court has not yet addressed the issue, but many federal circuit courts have taken up cases that deal with off-campus speech that is alleged to be cyberbullying, in which a student claims their First Amendment rights are being violated.

In these cases, the courts have stated there has to be a "substantial or foreseeable risk of disruption" to the school environment in order for school districts to regulate that conduct, she said, adding that the School Boards Association supports additional language in the bill that would address this.

Poolman told the Tribune after the bill hearing that she's open to amending the bill to further protect school districts.

"I certainly don't want to increase liability for schools, so if that is something that makes them feel a little bit better in order to take on some of this, I would absolutely entertain those types of amendments," she said.

The committee did not vote on the bill on Wednesday.

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(Reach Blair Emerson at 701-250-8251 or Blair.Emerson@bismarcktribune.com)

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Education and Health Reporter