Gov. Mark Dayton on Wednesday signed a bullying-prevention bill into law, creating a tough new set of rules for Minnesota schools to follow to protect students from being tormented by classmates.
The Safe and Supportive Schools Act replaced a 37-word anti-bullying law that was widely considered one of the nation’s weakest. Its passage came almost three years after the state’s largest school district was hit with a lawsuit that accused it of failing to protect students from being bullied.
“Nobody in this state or nation should have to feel bad about themselves for being who they are,” Dayton said. “This law says, ‘Not in Minnesota.’ ”
For more than two years, legislators have been battling over the measure’s language, details and philosophy. Opponents argued that it was too prescriptive and would take away control from local officials who know their schools best.
The law requires school districts to track and investigate cases of bullying and to better train staffers and teachers on how to prevent it. Some Minnesota school leaders still have lingering concerns about how much it will cost to implement the new law, while others — particularly in rural Minnesota — still wonder whether it was needed at all.
But most administrators said Wednesday that the law is simply the right thing to do.
“This debate is all too familiar to me,” said Dennis Carlson, superintendent of the Anoka-Hennepin district, where bullying has been a major issue for some time and which was sued. “But my point has always been that we have to put the welfare of students ahead of all the political rhetoric.”
Minnesota’s anti-bullying laws are no longer the weakest in the nation, but the bill signed into law is not as strong as its original incarnation.
A number of provisions in earlier versions were taken out to appease groups such as the Association of Metropolitan School Districts and the Minnesota School Boards Association. The final bill no longer requires schools to keep data and report it, and they won’t be subject to mandatory training of volunteers.
Districts will not have to adopt the state’s model policy unless they decline to devise one of their own. Many already have anti-bullying policies in place.
“We are really doing a great deal and plan on doing more to make sure all of our student feel safe and secure,” said Ryan Vernosh, administrator of St. Paul public schools’ strategic planning and policy efforts. “We really don’t anticipate a change in course.”
Toward the end of the past decade a number of states passed legislation to crack down on bullying, but Minnesota activists were dealt a major setback in 2009 when former Gov. Tim Pawlenty, a Republican, vetoed an anti-bullying measure.
Around that time, activists’ passions were ignited by a series of high-profile incidents of alleged bullying and suicides among students in the Anoka-Hennepin district, a situation that ultimately resulted in intervention by the U.S. Department of Justice. That led to a legal settlement that forced the state’s largest district to get more involved in policing harassment against students.
While Carlson said he supports the new law, some of his district’s school board members have lingering concerns about how much it will cost to implement. Cost estimates for statewide implementation have ranged between $5 million and $25 million.
“Our board is still not happy with it because they feel like it is an unfunded mandate,” he said. “For many school districts, that remains an issue.”
Urban and rural legislators were split over the bill. Fred Nolan, executive director of the Minnesota Rural Education Association, said many of his group’s members wanted to keep the current law in place.
“The issue is not as salient in our schools as it is for many metro schools,” he said. “Many felt as though it was a solution looking for a problem.”
Bill ‘American as ... can be’
During the nearly 12-hour debate on the Minnesota House floor Tuesday night, some Republicans said the bullying measure smacked of fascism, and others said it would create a totalitarian society like the one described in George Orwell’s book “1984.”
Rep. Glenn Gruenhagen, R-Glencoe, said he believes the law will do little to prevent bullying. He spoke more favorably of a spanking he once got as a child from a bus driver for bullying another child.
“The point is, it corrected the problem,” he said of the incident. “I didn’t have to go to counseling, therapy, or sue the bus driver. It was over.”
Dayton said that while much of the debate was heartfelt from both sides of the aisle, he believes some comments were out of line.
“The First Amendment guarantees free speech. But it doesn’t distinguish between intelligent speech and unintelligent speech,” Dayton said to applause. “This bill is American as any bill can be.”
The governor was flanked by children who had written to lawmakers, testified before the Legislature and spoken out about their support for the law. Among them was Jake Ross, 11, of Forest Lake, who introduced himself as a Boy Scout and a Christian.
In a calm, articulate speech, Jake told the crowd of his experience in elementary school. As a 7-year-old, he said, he was threatened, attacked, laughed at and abused by bullies who even threatened to kill him.
“Today marks the beginning of a change in thinking about bullying,” Jake said. “I am very happy for this day.”
He said his school lacked policies to protect him and that he ended up transferring to another. Now, he said, he wishes to tell other bullied children that he understands their struggles.
“I wish you freedom from your pain,” he said.