Call for tougher anti-bullying law prompts response: Not so fast

  • Article by: MARIA ELENA BACA , Star Tribune
  • Updated: July 31, 2012 - 11:47 PM

A task force will give its report -- one that deeply divides educators and legislators -- to Gov. Mark Dayton on Wednesday.

Reaction Tuesday to a task force's recommendation about how to toughen Minnesota's anti-bullying laws for schools made it clear that educators and legislators are deeply divided about how it will look or if it's even needed.

The Task Force on the Prevention of School Bullying will send its recommendations to Gov. Mark Dayton on Wednesday, then start the arduous process of making them law.

The report calls on the Legislature to work quickly to repeal the state's current 37-word anti-bullying law and replace it with a stronger, more comprehensive law.

The recommendations drew cheers from child advocates and skepticism from some GOP legislative leaders and those who represent school boards and administrators.

Co-chairwoman Julie Hertzog said she recognizes the challenges ahead.

"This is the start of a dialogue," she said. "The report is a framework to start those conversations. It's essential that they happen and that the ultimate goal is keeping our kids safe, but seeing what is realistic to do now and what is realistic to happen two to five years from now."

The main source of conflict emerging so far is how much influence the state should have on local district policies.

Curt Carpenter, principal of Clear Springs Elementary School in Minnetonka, said he's most pleased with the task force's recommendation that expectations and language be standardized across the state.

"My concern is that people won't do their part," said Carpenter, west suburban division president of the Minnesota Elementary School Principals' Association and nonvoting member of the task force.

But standardization was a stumbling block for some.

Rep. Sondra Erickson, R-Princeton, chairwoman of the House Education Reform Committee, said her group will study the task force's findings, but that she is dedicated to preserving local control of important educational issues.

"I find in my discussions with school folks that they like having that control and would like the Legislature to just let them deal with issues to the extent they can," she said, adding that the current law -- which requires only that schools have anti-bullying policies -- allows for a localized approach. "From a state perspective, I'm not sure this is an area that we should be legislating."

The task force will need to plan how to best approach a fluid Legislature; every House and Senate seat is up for grabs this year after redistricting.

Kirk Schneidawind, deputy executive director of the Minnesota School Boards Association and a nonvoting task force member, worried that top-down policies would put pressure on stretched school administrators and district budgets.

"Just like any mandate that comes down from the state to local governments, local boards are going to say if it's good enough to pass, it should be funded," he said.

Making schools safer

The issue of bullying has drawn a national spotlight in recent years, in the wake of several teen suicides that some linked to bullying. Earlier this year, the Anoka-Hennepin School District settled a lawsuit that contended the district hadn't done enough to stop harassment of gay and lesbian students, with a pledge to make schools safer for all students.

Guidelines suggested by the panel include: defining bullying; laying out the scope of local and state authority; identifying vulnerable groups while protecting all children; and setting guidelines for prevention, response and reporting.

This is not the first statewide anti-bullying effort since the current law was adopted in 2006 and amended to include cyberbullying in 2008. Bipartisan legislation was passed in 2009, but vetoed by Gov. Tim Pawlenty.

Task force member Sen. Scott Dibble, DFL-Minneapolis, said he won't introduce anti-bullying legislation during the upcoming special session. More work needs to be done before the next effort, he said.

Standing up

Alec Fischer, a 2012 graduate of Edina High School, said he never reported the bullying he suffered in middle and high school, for fear of reprisals. He plans to tour with "Minnesota Nice?" a documentary he made about the effects of bullying. He said he hopes students will speak up for change.

"I don't think the problem will ever go away, but we can make it better for the kids who are experiencing bullying," he said. "We need more students to become advocates for their schools and for their peers, and really enforce that. We want more legislation to pass to protect us, and we need more kids who are willing to stand up and say that we agree that we need more protection."

The 15-member task force has met regularly since March 19. Members listened to hundreds of people talk about effective programs that keep students safe, but also about in-school assaults and face-to-face and online verbal abuse that go unresolved when schools lack the structure to deal with them effectively.

Task force members will have an audience with Dayton later this month.

Maria Elena Baca • 612-673-4409

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