Gov. Mark Dayton will appoint a task force to explore the best methods used nationwide to confront bullying, a problem that affects more than 100,000 students a week in Minnesota, according to a 2011 study by the state Departments of Health and Education.
Speaking Tuesday at the State Capitol, Dayton said his 15-member panel will include his commissioners of education, human rights and public safety; four legislators from both parties, and eight other people with expertise in medicine, mental health, law or education. The group is to report back to the governor's office, the Legislature and the public by Aug. 1, 2012.
"The time has long since passed to step up and say, 'Enough, this does not have to be this way,'" Dayton said.
He said he wants to see "a Minnesota where every child can go to school and know it's a place where they are valued, loved, where school is for learning and creating your future."
Dayton's executive order is the second official call to action on bullying in the past week.
On Wednesday, Attorney General Lori Swanson proposed legislation to require school districts to respond to bullying reports within 24 hours. The bill also would require districts to create policies for reporting and documenting incidents, plans to protect students who are subject to bullying and those who report it. It was modeled after a law that drew bipartisan support this year in North Dakota.
Dayton reiterated that the task force had been in the works for some time but said he hoped Swanson's proposal would complement its work. In addition to studying current research, members will look at other states' laws and school policies, and interview experts, as well as educators, students and their families in hearings held statewide.
Dayton was joined by Education Commissioner Brenda Cassellius, Public Safety Commissioner Mona Doman, Human Rights Commissioner Kevin Lindsey and Sen. Scott Dibble and Rep. Jim Davnie, both Minneapolis DFLers. He also was joined by Tammy Aaberg, an anti-bullying activist whose son Justin committed suicide in 2010.
Dibble and Davnie recalled bipartisan support their comprehensive anti-bullying bill had in 2009, though it ultimately was vetoed by then-Gov. Tim Pawlenty. They were unable to secure a hearing for the same bill in 2011.
Although the governor can order the study of an issue, he cannot pass a law. That's the job of the Legislature, which passed the state's anti-bullying law in 2006, amending it in 2008 to include cyberbullying provisions.
Minnesota has the shortest anti-bullying law in the nation, at 37 words. It requires only that districts have written policies in place prohibiting all forms of intimidation and bullying. The law earned a C-minus grade from the watchdog group BullyPolice USA, the lowest grade of the 47 states that have anti-bullying laws.
Echoing Swanson's sentiments, Dayton said, "I want to have the A-plus-plus law, not the C-minus law."
The panel's report will arrive too late to influence the 2012 Legislature, but Dibble noted that its audience goes beyond the Capitol. "Minnesota is the audience," he said. "There will be actions for everyone to take in every sector of Minnesota life."
Agreement came from Cordelia Anderson, a Minneapolis anti-bullying expert and director of Sensibilities Prevention Services. "As much as we would like our policymakers to have some agreement on comprehensive efforts," she said, "it certainly can come about from the general public having more knowledge and putting more pressure on what our expectations are and what we want."
One of the more controversial aspects of the 2009 bill was its inclusion of "enumeration," or spelling out groups in need of particular protection, by race, national origin, gender and sexual orientation, for example.
This is a case, Davnie said, where adults can't transfer their own school experiences onto today's students.
"We need to take the roof off and look at who's in the schools today," he said, adding that schools are more diverse than they've ever been. "Just saying, 'Be nice,' isn't enough. The bullies know where the low-hanging fruit is."
Brooklyn Center schools Superintendent Keith Lester said he hopes the task force will look beyond the surface to the organizational flaws that allow bullying to happen. "What I would hope is they would dig real deep," he said, adding that the study should go beyond crime and punishment, at "rather what causes bullying and what are some of the things you do systemically to prevent bullying."
Maria Elena Baca • 612-673-4409