Even though the start of the 2014 legislative session is still two months away, the push to strengthen Minnesota’s anti-bullying law kicked into high gear Monday, as proponents urged legislators to act.
Members of the state’s largest teachers union, which represents 70,000 educators, were among those rallying at Central High School in St. Paul for the Safe and Supportive Minnesota Schools Act, which promises to be one of the most contentious issues facing legislators.
“We are very serious about it. It’s a priority,” said Education Minnesota President Denise Specht. “It should have happened last year, and it’s unfortunate that it didn’t.”
Supporters of the bill say Minnesota’s current 37-word statute on bullying is too weak. Opponents say that the proposed measure is overly expansive and that it could unfairly brand some students as bullies.
Introduced last session by Rep. Jim Davnie and Sen. Scott Dibble, both Minneapolis DFLers, the Safe and Supportive Minnesota Schools Act would require schools to draw up detailed anti-bullying policies and set up protections for students who face harassment, including those bullied because of their race, religion or sexual orientation.
Last spring, the bill cleared the House but stalled in the Senate as other issues such as school funding, same-sex marriage and the Vikings stadium deal dominated the session.
This time around, the bill appears to be high on a legislative wish list for Democrats, and is backed by a coalition of students, educators, parents and groups representing students with disabilities and those who are gay, lesbian, bisexual or transgender.
On Monday, rallies were held in St. Paul and Duluth, while students collected petition signatures at nine Minneapolis schools. Those efforts were coordinated by the Minnesota Safe Schools for All Coalition, which includes about 100 organizations.
“If we all come together, share our stories, and make our voices heard, I know we can get this bill passed,” said Monica Meyer, executive director of OutFront Minnesota, one of the coalition’s leading groups.
Opponents have argued that — in its current form — the legislation could label students bullies for expressing religious or political beliefs.
“With students raised in different cultures and faiths, what may be an honest expression of a belief shared by a student based on family upbringing may be considered offensive enough to constitute bullying to another,” State Rep. Kathy Lohmer, R-Stillwater, recently wrote in a guest column in the Stillwater Gazette. “Yet, with no requirement that parents be notified if their child is accused of bullying, what recourse do parents and students have? Education requires the free exchange of ideas without fear of persecution.”
Others have argued the proposal is an unnecessary, expensive reach of government that could cause more problems than it solves. Last session, the Minnesota Management and Budget estimated that it would cost schools statewide up to $19.5 million a year to implement the new anti-bullying policies.
Kirk Schneidawind, executive director of the Minnesota School Boards Association, said members of his group support efforts to prevent bullying but simply “want a better bill.”
“For us, it’s the breadth of the definition of bullying,” he said. “It’s too broad.”
One of the most frequent criticisms of Minnesota’s current anti-bullying law is that policies can vary wildly from one district to the next.
The House bill requires schools to clearly define what constitutes bullying, harassment and intimidation and to report all incidents. It also requires districts to spell out how they will protect students and to offer bullying prevention training to students and staff alike.
Della Kurzer-Zlotnick, a student at Central High School, said she was bullied for several months in seventh grade because her mothers were lesbians.
“I didn’t tell anybody,” she said. “I didn’t think there was any policy in place to help me. I didn’t think teachers cared.”
The Safe and Supportive Minnesota Schools bill was introduced a year after a March 2012 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. Students and officials in the district have described progress against bullying in the wake of actions taken by the district before and after the settlement.
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.”