By Brian Heaton

New legislation would make it easier for kids to report harassment, intimidation and bullying in South Carolina schools.

The “Report-A-Bully in School Website Act” was introduced by Rep. Chip Limehouse, R-Charlestown, last month, requiring school districts to develop a website where people can anonymously report instances of bullying. A form on the website must also include the date, location and circumstances of the incident and the identity of the person being accused of the acts.

H. 4413 mandates that schools shall report the number of acts submitted through the websites on a monthly basis and what actions were taken to investigate and resolve the incidents.

Limehouse told the Aiken Standard in January that he was motivated to sponsor legislation due to the stories throughout the U.S. about children committing suicide because of intense bullying by their classmates. In the article, Rep. Bill Taylor, R-Aiken said the bill “has merit,” but expressed concerns that students could abuse the anonymous reporting by making false allegations against others.

In an interview with Government Technology, William McBee Smith, a partner with the Smith & Haskell Law Firm in Spartansburg, S.C., agreed that the reporting process outlined in the bill could be abused, but was more concerned about the legislation’s impact on schools in the future. He believes the bill establishes a minimum statutory standard of care for schools in South Carolina to track and investigate anonymous reports of bullying. That could potentially spell trouble for some schools.

“This Act will be vulnerable to abuse, which is one reason [it] provides that the data and information gathered will not be subject to disclosure in response to any Freedom of Information Act request,” Smith said. “However, in the event of litigation, all data and information gathered would be subject to court subpoena. If a school district fails to follow the minimum standards established under the Act, the school district could be held liable for negligence.”

Government Technology contacted Limehouse’s office numerous times over the past two weeks for comment on the concerns, but the messages went unreturned.

The Report-A-Bully-in School Website Act also has various requirements for the South Carolina Board of Education. If the legislation passes and is signed by Gov. Nikki Haley, the Board must develop model policies regarding the development of the reporting websites within 30 days of her signature. The Board must also create a program to market the websites and their use.

In an email to Government Technology, Dino Teppara, director of legislative and public affairs for the South Carolina Department of Education, said districts and schools should use all means necessary to encourage and stop bullying. He explained that there are protocols already in place to investigate bullying claims and the legislation wouldn’t change how schools follow existing policies and procedures.

Despite Smith's comments, Teppara wasn't overly concerned about the Act’s effect on school operations.

“There would be ongoing IT support needed within districts and schools to monitor the websites,” Teppara said regarding the bill’s impact, adding that the state has “IT staff available to make recommendations, conduct research, and meet the statutory obligations” the legislation would levy on the S.C. Department of Education.