File photo

Teachers and other school district employees would face $200 fines if they fail to report bullying incidents under a bill being circulated by a Republican lawmaker.

But some school advocates worry the bill would have unintended consequences.

“I think it creates incentives in the wrong directions,” said Dan Rossmiller, director of government relations for the Wisconsin Association of School Boards.

He said he fears the proposal could lead to teachers over-identifying student behavior as bullying due to fears of being penalized, or districts narrowing the definition of bullying in an effort to avoid exhausting school resources on a flood of bullying investigations.

But the bill’s sponsor, Rep. Garey Bies, R-Sister Bay, said parents have told him they talked to teachers about bullying problems and “nothing was ever done.”

He added that another measure, which became law in May 2010, already requires school boards to develop policies to combat bullying in their schools, including defining bullying and establishing reporting procedures, but that law doesn’t include penalties for those who fail to report the behavior.

“I thought maybe we need to put more incentive into somebody following through,” Bies said. “If we do this in the beginning, more drastic situations won’t be happening.”

Definitions of bullying and specific procedures for reporting it depend largely on school districts’ policies. The law required the Department of Public Instruction to develop a model school policy on bullying, which provides guidance to school districts, but school boards can make extensive changes to create their district policies.

The DPI model policy defines bullying as “deliberate or intentional behavior using words or actions, intended to cause fear, intimidation or harm.” It says bullying behavior can be physical, verbal, or indirect, such as spreading rumors, social exclusion, or cyber bullying. Bullying may be repeated behavior, involve an imbalance of power, and can be motivated by a number of characteristics, including age, national origin, race, ethnicity, religion, gender, sexual orientation, and a disability, the model policy says.

And it says that all school staff members and school officials who “observe or become aware of acts of bullying” are required to report them — verbally or in writing — to a specific school staff member or administration designated by the Board of Education so reports can be investigated. The model policy also says districts should maintain records about the numbers and types of bullying reports that are made as well as any resulting penalties, and that an annual summary reports should be presented to school boards and be made available to the public.

Bies’ bill would make those district officials or employees who fail to report bullying subject to $200 forfeitures.

“To me, it’s an insurance policy,” he said.

Patrick Gasper, spokesman for DPI, had no comment about the bill.

Christina Brey, spokeswoman for Wisconsin Education Association Council, did not respond to requests for comment.