Minn.’s rework of anti-bullying law takes shape

/ 19 July 2012 / eunice

Maria Elena Baca, Star Tribune, July 19, 2012 – Minnesota needs an anti-bullying law that supports victims, calls for constructive discipline and teaches children and adults alike to recognize and stop the behavior, according to a preliminary report by a gubernatorial committee.

The 14-member Task Force for the Prevention of School Bullying approved the draft Tuesday. The panel stopped short of recommending statutory language but is offering a set of criteria from the U.S. Department of Education for legislators to consider. Among them: defining bullying and describing its effects; laying out the scope of local and state authority; identifying vulnerable groups while protecting all children, and setting guidelines for prevention, response and reporting.

Members will consider amendments next week, and further revisions are likely before Aug. 1, when the final report is due on Gov. Mark Dayton’s desk, said co-chairman Walter Roberts, professor of counselor education at Minnesota State University, Mankato.

Task force members have called bullying prevention an urgent issue in Minnesota and nationwide, in the wake of several teen suicides that some linked to bullying.

Earlier this year, the Anoka-Hennepin School District settled a lawsuit, which contended that the district hadn’t done enough to stop the harassment of gay and lesbian students, with a pledge to make schools safer for all students.

Minnesota currently has the shortest school anti-bullying law in the nation, at 37 words. It says only that districts must have written policies prohibiting all forms of bullying. Last fall, the national watchdog group Bully Police USA gave it a C-minus, the lowest grade of the 47 states that have such laws.

Dayton announced plans for the task force shortly afterward, saying “I want to have the A-plus-plus law, not the C-minus law.”

An anti-bullying bill was introduced during the 2012 legislative session, but it did not advance beyond committee.

A 2009 measure, more expansive than current law, was vetoed by Gov. Tim Pawlenty, who said the existing law was sufficient because it prohibits bullying “against any student for any reason.”

Meeting and listening

The task force, which includes members with backgrounds in education, child development, civil rights and youth advocacy, has met seven times since March 19.

Several members reached Wednesday said the most powerful moments came during the listening sessions in the Twin Cities, Rochester, Duluth, St. Cloud, Mankato and Bemidji.

The panel heard praise for existing programs, but there were also many who expressed frustration and helplessness in dealing with school bureaucracies that lack a structure for addressing assault, persistent verbal abuse and online name-calling and rumor-mongering.

“The most touching were the stories from families and kids who came and talked about being targeted,” said Rep. Jim Davnie, DFL-Minneapolis.

Several task force members said that the outcome of the Nov. 6 election is likely to affect their future work but that they hope concern for kids will transcend politics.

“This should not be a political issue,” said Education Commissioner Brenda Cassellius, a task force member.

“Every child, in public school, private school, home school, deserves a safe and welcoming environment in which to learn. This should not be a political issue, period.”

It’s vital that the task force figure out how to publicize its work, said Rep. Tim Kelly R-Red Wing, one of four legislators — two Republicans and two DFLers — in the group.

To get bipartisan support, Kelly said, it needs to be presented as more than big government.

“This isn’t simply an expansion of a government program and getting more money to the Department of Education,” he said. “It’s looking at a problem and attacking it.”