Dayton signs anti-bullying bill; WAPS leaders in support, Winona teacher on hand for ceremony

/ 10 April 2014 / eunice

Abby Eisenberg, Winona Daily News, April 10, 2014 – Winona Senior High School teacher Lora Hill doesn’t understand any of the opposition to Minnesota’s new anti-bullying law.

“Kids do not learn when they don’t feel safe,” she said — that simple.

Hill joined a group of students, parents and educators in St. Paul on Wednesday as Gov. Mark Dayton signed the Safe and Supportive Minnesota Schools Act into law during a ceremony on the steps of the state Capitol.

Supporters say it will provide a safer learning environment for children. Critics argue it will subject more kids to punishment for expressing their religious beliefs or engaging in other youthful behavior.

The bill requires school districts to track and investigate cases of bullying and directs schools to better train staff and teachers on how to prevent it. Current law requires school districts to have a bullying policy but doesn’t include details on what the policy should contain.

Support from area leaders

Winona-area superintendents gave favorable early impressions of the new legislation. Though they recognized that meeting the new requirements may mean more money and extra work, they unite behind the law’s purpose.

“As a school district, we’re going to do the best we can to work with the new legislation,” said Mark Roubinek, superintendent of St. Charles Public Schools. “I’m sure some of it will be very easy, and some of it will provide new challenges. But the goal is still the same — to make schools safe for kids.”

Rushford-Peterson superintendent Chuck Ehler called bullying a “highly emotionally charged issue,” especially when it comes to incidents around the state in recent years where bullying has lead children to suicide.

“Every school in the nation is in tune to what bullying can do,” he said. “And there’s nothing wrong with schools having a new level of sensitivity to that.”

Ehler said he’d like to see his district do a better job of educating students, parents and staff how to recognize and prevent bullying.

“Change is never easy,” he said, “And this is going to be a change. But we need to create a school climate so students can trust that when an issue arises, there are caring adults that are there to assist them.”

Winona Area Public Schools superintendent Scott Hannon said that the district for years has had policies in place regarding bullying, harassment and acceptable uses for technology that cover many of the issues brought up in the new law.

So Hannon said WAPS shouldn’t need to start from scratch on their policies. However, he said, it will still take time for a group of administrators to compare the existing rules to the law, making any necessary changes and ensuring the district is on track.

While Hannon recognized the new requirements will take extra administrative work, he’s supportive of the bill’s mission. If it takes any money, the district will just need to find it.

“We all want our children when they go to school to feel safe and cared for,” he said.

A yearslong effort

Wednesday wasn’t the first time that Hill, a special-education teacher who also formed and advises the student social-justice group FORTITUDE, had traveled to that very spot to speak on behalf of that very same issue.

In 2007, she traveled to the state Capitol with FORTITUDE — Forever On Route To Independence, Tolerance, Understanding, Diversity and Education — to share stories of bullying with state lawmakers and hear their opinions.

The issue had a particular impact on the group at that the time, she said, as they heard news of school-aged kids around the state committing suicide as a result of bullying.

“I didn’t want to go to the funeral of someone we didn’t protect,” she said.

Hill, who is one of 10 finalists for this year’s Teacher of the Year award in part because of her work to curb bullying, said WSHS has several good things in place to address the issue in the school.

The existence of FORTITUDE for one, which she’s seen improve the school’s climate in its decade or so of existence. There are also avenues for students to anonymously report incidents of bullying. For years, Hill has surveyed the student population on the subject so teachers and administrators can stay informed.

Still, she sees the new law as a significant, positive step in making schools safer for kids all across the state.

For schools already doing a good job, it’s a chance to restart a conversation about how they can do better. And for those that haven’t adequately addressed bullying, the law is an affirmation that they need to, Hill said.

And not just on behalf of the victims. When it comes to bullying, Hill is concerned for all parties involved.

“It’s about how do we help all of us understand that this isn’t the society we want to live in,” Hill said.

For Hill, that’s about constant vigilance and always being loving in her approach. Most of all, she said, it’s about building community.

Hill seeks to do that by playing music so students can dance together in the commons each Friday before school. Putting on an annual student-written diversity play for students, teachers and staff. Creating anti-bullying posters and announcements.

Last year, Hill and FORTITUDE organized a “Kindness Matters” week, where teachers got together and grilled for students, handed out bubbles and chalk and just showed students the power of being good to one another.

And, Hill noted, they’ve done it all without a budget.

The reason for the tireless work is simple.

“I choose love,” Hill said. “We choose love.”