After marathon House debate, school-bullying bill goes to Dayton
Christopher Magan, Pioneer Press, April 9, 2014 – After nearly 12 hours of impassioned objections by Republicans, the DFL-controlled House sent an overhaul of Minnesota’s bullying-prevention law to Gov. Mark Dayton early Wednesday morning.
GOP lawmakers acknowledged from the start of the debate at 1 p.m. Tuesday that House DFLers had the votes to pass the Safe and Supportive Minnesota Schools Act, but they objected to the measure right up until the vote, shortly before 12:30 a.m.
The bill prevailed on a 69-63 vote, mostly along party lines.
The bill passed the Senate last week with a 36-31 vote with all Republicans and three DFLers voting against it.
Minnesota’s current anti-bullying law is 37 words. The bill requires school leaders to develop a comprehensive anti-bullying policy, train staff to prevent bullying and quickly investigate allegations.
Jim Davnie, DFL-Minneapolis, the chief sponsor of the measure in the House, said the legislation is needed to ensure students felt safe at school.
“We talk about this being about anti-bullying, and it is. It’s also about positioning Minnesota as a leader in the next generation of education reform,” Davnie said, referring to the role safe schools play in academic achievement.
Opponents of the law say it imposes a costly new bureaucracy that takes local control from school leaders and gives special protections to certain students. They say school leaders don’t need or want the bill, which is expected to cost districts up to $20 million annually.
House Republicans used vivid imagery to demonstrate their opposition in hours of speeches. They said the bill itself amounted to bullying, described it as fascism and compared it to George Orwell’s novel “1984,” about a state completely controlled by the government.
“The Democrats want access into your private life,” said Rep. Jim Newberger, R-Becker.
“If this isn’t a mirror image of ‘1984,’ I don’t know what is. The only difference is George Orwell was off by 30 years.”
Several House Republicans worried the bullying prevention bill would force school districts to teach young students about sexuality — something Rep. Glenn Gruenhagen, R-Glencoe, said could expose students to “filthy, perverted information.”
Davnie countered repeatedly that the bill has nothing to do with curriculum about sex.
“Sexuality and health education is local control and not affected by this bill,” Davnie said. “There has been a lot of misinformation about this bill. The perception it deals with sexuality education is not correct.”
Others said the measure was DFLers backing the agenda of OutFront Minnesota, an advocacy group for gay and lesbian rights.
More than 100 groups back the legislation.
“This bill is more about a social agenda than preventing bullying,” said Rep. Mike Benson, R-Rochester.
One of the most controversial parts of the bullying prevention bill is a section that specifies students cannot be bullied for their sexual orientation or gender identity. Opponents say that amounts to special protection, but supporters argue it is necessary to ensure all students are safe.
Republican lawmakers also questioned how the law would be implemented and whether it would restrict students’ freedom of speech and other rights.
“Students do not shed their constitutional rights when they enter the schoolhouse door,” said Rep. Joyce Peppin, R-Rogers.
House members passed the bullying bill last year before it was revised and then amended in the Senate to address concerns of educators and other critics. Those changes included narrowing the definition of bullying and removing the state education commissioner’s ability to withhold funds from districts that fail to comply with the law.
Dayton, a Democrat, plans to sign the Safe and Supportive Minnesota Schools Act, a key priority for DFL lawmakers and their supporters, at ceremony on the Capitol steps at 4 p.m. Wednesday.