Minnesota House committee passes anti-bullying bill

/ 1 March 2013 / eunice

Paul Levy, Star Tribune, March 1, 2013 – The bullies repeatedly pushed second-grader Jake Ross to the ground. They took his backpack. He recalled a schoolmate yelling, “Who’s going to help me beat up Jake today?” and a student later threatening, “I’m going to kill you” if he told anyone.

Jake, now 10, was “scared about this for many, many more days,” he said Thursday as he appeared before a House committee in St. Paul. But when his mother asked the director of Jake’s charter school in Forest Lake for help, she was told the school had no list of procedures or consequences for bullying, he said.

The Safe and Supportive Minnesota Schools Bill, which generated impassioned pleas from students and parents appearing before the Education Policy Committee on Thursday evening, aims to change the way school officials address bullying. The bill cleared its first legislative hurdle when the committee approved it in a voice vote.

Sponsored by Rep. Jim Davnie and Sen. Scott Dibble, Minneapolis DFLers, the bill requires every Minnesota school district to have an anti-bullying policy that includes specified components.

For example, the policy must contain clear definitions of bullying, harassment and intimidation, as well as protections for students most likely to be bullied or harassed because of characteristics such as race, religion or sexual orientation, among others.

The bill also emphasizes training and resources for students and staff on bullying prevention and intervention and procedures staff must follow when incidents are reported.

“Right now, students like me are still going through the pain of bullying,” said Jake, whose mother removed him from the school after the administration, she said, failed to investigate the incidents that occurred three years ago.

Victim ‘excited about this bill’

The 21-page bill, which would replace the state’s current 37-word bullying law, was introduced a year after a landmark anti-bullying settlement resolved a federal investigation and a lawsuit against the Anoka-Hennepin School District. The suit, filed by six students in 2011, involved bullying based on real or perceived sexual orientation.

Among those who testified Thursday was Kyrstin Schuette, 20 — one of the six students, who was identified as Jane Doe in the suit that generated national attention.

Before testifying, Schuette told the Star Tribune of how she dropped out of Anoka High School in her senior year because “the bullying was so relentless.”

“It was an atmosphere that begged for a response,” said Schuette, who describes herself as bisexual. “But there was no response.

“People called me names, made threats, called me a sinner, threw Gatorade at me and vandalized my property,” she said. “Teachers heard it all. The associate principal told me to lay low.”

“I’m excited about this bill,” Schuette said. “It’s a step in the right direction. I think all of us want to make a change.”

In the Anoka-Hennepin district, students and officials have described progress against bullying in the wake of a number of actions taken by the district before and after the settlement.

Opponents of bill also spoke

Others who testified Thursday included representatives of the state Department of Education, OutFront Minnesota, the Anoka-Hennepin Teachers Union, the PACER Center and Minnesota Charter Schools.

Ann Gettis of Kenyon, Minn., told the hearing that her son was bullied relentlessly and committed suicide in 2006.

She said through tears, “I believe my son’s unbearable pain and sadness was preventable,” and she implored the committee to pass the bill.

A majority of the speakers supported the legislation, but there were at least a couple who opposed it, including a mother from Champlin who said it would do teens more harm than good.

Katherine Kersten, a former Star Tribune columnist who still contributes to the paper’s opinion pages, said the bill could prove to be “an administrative nightmare for school officials,” who, she said, might be required to police students’ cell phones and Internet activity 24 hours a day.

’09 bill, ’12 task force

In 2009, a Safe Schools for All bill passed both the House and the Senate but was vetoed by then-Gov. Tim Pawlenty, who said, in part, that the existing law was sufficient because it prohibits bullying “against any student for any reason.”

Last year, Gov. Mark Dayton established a task force on prevention of school bullying. It issued a report in August with recommendations to school districts and legislators.

The bill passed by the House committee Thursday would establish a School Climate Center within the Department of Education. The center would offer assistance to students, parents and schools, review policy and interpret data of reported bullying.

“I don’t think bullying is going to go away,” said Schuette, who plans to go to culinary school. “But we can make a difference in how it’s handled.”