by T.W. Budig
ECM Capitol reporter
A binding thread in the school-bullying debate is painful memories.
The Democratic-led House on Monday (May 6) passed the so-called “Safe and Supportive Minnesota Schools Act,” legislation that uses recommendations from a recent governor’s school-bullying task force.
A companion bill — one with a two-year $39 million statewide price tag — is advancing in the Democratic-led Senate.
Although Republicans and Democrats differ on the bullying bills, debate has been filled with personal reminiscences of being bullied.
“I got shoved into (school) lockers,” Rep. Joe McDonald, R-Delano, said of being physically short.
Rep. Peggy Scott, R-Andover, who, like McDonald, has grave concerns about the legislation, also recalled being a target.
“I got called ‘Piggy’ an awful lot,” she said.
Rep. Pam Myhra, R-Burnsville, remembered her fourth-grade teacher holding up her poor test score, inviting the class to ridicule her.
“She encouraged the bullying,” Myhra said.
Powerful testimony was heard in committee.
“My senior year I became a social outcast,” said Kyrstin Schuette of Anoka, who told a Senate committee of having a sports drink thrown at her, being called a sinner, dropping out of Anoka High School, attempting suicide, all related to her sexuality.
The legislation takes a broad approach.
It creates a School Climate Council to improve school climate and safety, and a School Climate Center at the Department of Education to serve as a single point of contact for schools and parents, evaluate data, provide resources.
Terms like “bullying” and “cyberbullying” are defined in the legislation — Senate and House bills slightly differ.
Bullying, as defined in the bill, can involve intimidating or harassing actions directed at students based on actual or perceived race, ethnicity, color, creed, religion, national origins — some 19 categories are specified.
Under Senate language, school districts are required to conduct annual reviews and establish best practices.
Minimum school district anti-bullying policy requirements are spelled out.
For instance, a primary contact persons must be designated. Procedures to investigate reports of bullying within three school days must be in place.
Policies must prohibit reprisals, allow for anonymous reporting and offer ongoing professional development.
The legislation calls for the creation of a state model anti-bullying policy. School districts that do not develop local policies must adopt the state policy.
House Republicans were uncomfortable.
“I can’t vote for your bill. And that troubles me deeply,” Rep. Jenifer Loon, R-Eden Prairie, said.
Rep. Peggy Scott, R-Andover, asked House bill author Rep. Jim Davnie, DFL-Minneapolis, whether a student saying that homosexuality was a sin constituted bullying.
Davnie, while saying factors like time and place weigh into determining bullying, said free speech is protected by his legislation.
Scott was unconvinced, styling the bill as the use of state power to spread ideology.
“It’s a huge overreach,” she said.
McDonald, saying bullying is a serious issue, also said he dealt with it.
Indeed, over time, he became friends with the people who bullied him.
Rep. Ron Kresha, R-Little Falls, said the legislation veers off course and sets school districts up for failure.
“I’m not going back to my district and say, ‘I don’t trust you,’” he said of honoring local control.
In an amendment, Kresha attempted to make the anti-bullying legislation more of a guide than directive, but failed.
House Republicans attempted a number of times to amend the legislation, offering one amendment allowing school boards using the Minnesota School Boards Association’s model policy on bullying and acceptable Internet use as satisfying the requirements in the bill.
“I don’t think it’s appropriate to outsource eduction policy to one group,” Davnie said.
The amendment failed.
The House passed the legislation on a 72 to 57 vote.
Senate Republicans voiced concerns in the Senate Education Committee on Tuesday (May 7).
Sen. Branden Pedersen, R-Andover, called the anti-bullying bill a massive, unfunded mandate.
But Sen. John Hoffman, DFL-Champlin, thanked Senate bill author Sen. Scott Dibble, DFL-Minneapolis.
“This bill is long overdue,” Hoffman said.
A Minnesota Association of School Administrators official indicated the association’s support for the bill.
Anoka-Hennepin School District Superintendent Dennis Carlson said the legislation could be seen as an unfunded mandate.
But he could think of other unfunded mandates, such as with special education, that school districts must deal with.
“People (school districts) need to find the funding,” Carlson said.
Children must feel safe at school, he said.
Dibble, like Davnie, views the legislation as mirroring the recommendations of the task force.
“Governor (Mark) Dayton pulled together a task force on the prevention of school bullying and this bill is really written to the recommendation,” he said.
Right now, Minnesota has the weakest anti-bullying law in the nation — a mere 37 words, he said.
The Senate Education Committee approved the legislation, advancing the bill to the Senate Finance Committee.
Tim Budig is at [email protected]