Minnesota law has 37 words to say about bullying right now.
The Minnesota House upped that tally to 21 pages Monday night as it pushed through sweeping new antibullying provisions.
The Safe and Supportive Schools Bill, which follows a heartbreaking wave of student suicides at Minnesota schools, would require schools to draw up detailed antibullying policies and set up protections for students who face harassment, including those being bullied because of their race, religion or sexual orientation.
"Students get to play checkers. They don't deserve a checkerboard of policies across the state where if they move, they move from a setting that's safe and supportive into one that isn't because of who they are or because of what somebody thinks they are," said the bill's sponsor, Rep. Jim Davnie, DFL-Minneapolis, just before the legislation cleared the House by a vote of 72-57.
The bill deeply divided the House, but during the long debate, legislators from both parties rose to share painfully personal stories of bullying from their own childhoods.
Rep. Pam Myhra, R-Burnsville, remembered moving to Minnesota from Bolivia and being relentlessly tormented by classmates, and even a teacher, as she struggled to learn a new language and culture.
Rep. Jason Isaacson, DFL-Shoreview, talked about the educators who helped him when his own family could not.
Even Rep. Peggy Scott, R-Andover, a staunch opponent of the antibullying bill, recalled her own classroom torments. "You know what name sounds awfully close to Peggy? Piggy! I got called Piggy a lot," she said.
But beyond that common ground, the antibullying bill faced fierce opposition from legislators who saw it as an unnecessary state intrusion that could cause more problems than it solves.
Some worried that students would be labeled bullies for expressing their religious or political beliefs. Others objected to the idea that students might be directed to community resources — like, say, support groups for gay teens — without their parents' knowledge.
"Of course no one approves of bullying. No one on this side of the aisle, that side of the aisle, there's not a single Minnesotan who would stand up and say they think bullying is the right thing to do," said Rep. Kelby Woodard, R-Belle Plaine. "But this top-down approach from St. Paul is not the way to address it."
Rep. Dean Urdahl, R-Grove City, a retired educator, said the state can't legislate bullying away.
"In 35 years of teaching, 29 years in coaching, I've seen it all. Hurt feelings, failure, anger, tears and yes, even suicide," he said. "In the last half-dozen years, three students at my former school took their own lives. … I called the principal of the school and asked if there was anything we could do legislatively to help. He said the laws couldn't change what happened."
But one of the most serious critiques of Minnesota's current antibullying statute 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.
Davnie said the bill came after painstaking work as well as talks with students, parents and educators across the state.
"Teachers who told us they didn't feel like they have the power they needed and they didn't have the training they needed to intervene," he said. "Students who told us that the policies that are in place aren't enough, that a poster on the wall telling everyone to be nice, is great, but … there's got to be something more behind the posters than just tape."
Minnesota Management and Budget estimated that it would cost schools statewide up to $19.5 million a year to implement the new antibullying policies. The House education budget includes antibullying funding for schools as part of its safe-schools funding.
The Senate is expected to debate its version of the antibullying bill in committee Tuesday.