Minnesota schoolchildren picked on by other students would have stronger protections under an antibullying bill that has been revamped to win the support of key education groups.
Sen. Scott Dibble, DFL-Minneapolis, co-author of the proposed Safe and Supportive Schools Act, presented an edited bill Tuesday that in part tightened the definition of bullying to a pattern of “intimidating, threatening, abusive or harming conduct” and cut expensive or onerous mandates.
The changed language didn’t soothe Republican members of the Senate Education Committee, however, who debated the bill during a packed five-hour hearing that had the measure’s backers and opponents lined up outside the hearing room door to testify.
Minnetonka High School senior Jae Bates said that relentless bullying over race and identifying as transgender led to thoughts of suicide.
“The end of my torture only came after I voiced suicidal thoughts to social work staff at my school,” Bates testified. “Things changed because people finally realized how much their words and their actions were truly hurting me.”
Kathy Trosvik’s 12-year-old son Tom hanged himself eight years ago after he was bullied by classmates in the Fridley School District, she told senators Tuesday.
She’s become a staunch antibullying advocate but said Dibble’s bill, which focuses on students tormented because of factors of race, religion and sexual orientation, isn’t the right answer.
“He was a normal, quirky boy who wouldn’t fit into any category in this bill,” Trosvik told the committee. “I oppose this bill because it doesn’t protect other children like Tom. All children need to be protected, not just those deemed by legislators more worthy of protection.”
Dibble maintained that it’s necessary to list certain groups particularly susceptible to bullying, but that the bill is inclusive to all.
“The bill protects all students,” he said.
The bill cleared the committee and heads to the Senate Finance Committee.
Changes appease many groups
Dibble’s amendments appeased the major education groups who were against the original legislation because they feared it could strip schools, parents and teachers of any authority to address bullying on their own terms while adding a slew of new, costly responsibilities.
Scott Croonquist, executive director of the Association of Metropolitan School Districts, said his group was initially opposed to the legislation because of how it defined bullying and because of costly volunteer training and reporting requirements.
The overhaul addresses those concerns, he said, and has consequently won the group’s support.
“We have always supported safe and supportive learning environments,” he said. “But we had concerns about how the legislation was going to be implemented. It lacked clarity in many ways. But I think these changes address all the issues.”
Foes cite costs, consequences
The Minnesota School Boards Association remains opposed to the legislation, mainly because group members still think it will be too costly.
They are also concerned the amended bill gives the state education commissioner the authority to withhold school funding for violations of the bullying law.
Still, the group’s lobbyist, Grace Keliher, said the amendments tackle many of the group’s concerns. She called the changes “a step in the right direction.”
Sen. Carla Nelson, R-Rochester, unsuccessfully attempted late in the hearing to replace Dibble’s legislation with her own alternative, a three-page bill modeled after North Dakota’s antibullying legislation.
Sen. Roger Chamberlain, R-Lino Lakes, warned committee members of what was to come.
“We want to protect kids. I was bullied just like anybody else,” he said. “You don’t know what you’re going to get with this; you’re not going to like it in the end.”
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