Minnesota Senate takes up bullying bill today

/ 2 April 2014 / eunice

Christopher Magan, Pioneer Press, April 2, 2014 – A bullying prevention bill, altered after it stalled in the Legislature last year, appears headed for a vote in the Senate on Thursday.

The Safe and Supportive Minnesota Schools Act, sponsored by state Sen. Scott Dibble, DFL-Minneapolis, is expected to be debated during a noon floor session. The bill was last in the Senate in May, when it was tabled after the threat of a Republican filibuster.

The bill, a top priority for Democratic-Farmer-Labor legislators and their supporters, has seen a lot of changes since the last legislative session. Dibble revised it to be more palatable to school administrators.

School district advocates have worried the bill would be expensive to implement with the statewide cost to schools estimated at up to $20 million annually.

Leaders of the Minnesota School Boards Association and a state principals group spoke in support of the changes that narrowed the definition of bullying and specified who would need to receive training.

Republican lawmakers, though, remain opposed. Sen. Roger Chamberlain, R-Lino Lakes, and Sen. Carla Nelson, R-Rochester, offered an alternative bill, but it has been rejected by DFLers, who say it is not comprehensive enough.

The alternative legislation leaves out a controversial piece that Dibble says is a key part of his proposed law. The Safe and Supportive Schools bill specifies that students cannot be bullied for their sexual orientation or gender identity.

Opponents argue that gives special protection to certain students, but supporters say specificity is necessary to ensure that all students are protected.

Republicans were able to make further changes to the law in the Senate Finance Committee, where Sen. Sean Nienow, R-Cambridge, won DFL support to remove the threat of financial penalties for schools that do not comply with the legislation. That change was also supported by school administrators.

Dibble has said throughout the legislative session that he expects a continued heated debate about the legislation.

The discussion about how Minnesota should update its 37-word bullying prevention law has long been controversial. Dibble’s legislation was written using recommendations from a task force created by Gov. Mark Dayton in 2012.

If the Safe and Supportive Minnesota Schools Act wins approval in the Senate, it still must be reconciled with an earlier version of the bill that was approved in the House last year. House members can agree with the Senate changes or send the measure to a conference committee.