Counterpoint: Disregard fear, misconceptions on antibullying bill

  • Article by: STEVE LARSON and DENISE SPECHT
  • Updated: February 28, 2014 - 6:39 PM

More than 100 groups are advocating for a comprehensive Safe Schools plan.

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Kids endure bullying every day in classrooms, in cafeterias and on school buses across Minnesota.

Our state has the weakest antibullying law in the nation. Minnesota can do better at protecting our students from harassment and intimidation in our schools.

That’s why we, along with more than 120 other organizations representing a broad cross-section of Minnesotans, support the Safe and Supportive Minnesota Schools Act.

Unfortunately, Katherine Kersten’s Feb. 27 commentary (“Antibullying bill ‘safe’? Check the hidden agenda”) propagates misconceptions and fears to drum up opposition to the comprehensive antibullying legislation we need.

Kersten gives the impression that this bill is about promoting a lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender agenda. That is false. Our coalition of education, disability, religious, social service, parent and medical organizations wants all of our students to feel safe, supported and valued when they walk into school.

Kersten mistakenly believes that the bill’s list of groups more likely to be bullied would exclude some students. The bill’s language unequivocally protects all students. But there’s good reason for also having the detailed list; certain students are more likely to be harassed. Students with disabilities, for example, are at least two times more likely to be bullied than the rest of their peers. One study found that 60 percent of students with disabilities report being bullied regularly, compared with 25 percent of all students.

Students experience less bullying and feel safer overall when laws include comprehensive lists of characteristics that identify students who are more vulnerable to bullying. Teachers are also more likely to intervene effectively when laws include such lists.

Another of Kersten’s claims — that a majority of school districts has adopted the Minnesota School Boards Association’s model bullying policy — is small comfort in those districts that have not adopted it. Having comprehensive policies in place to keep students safe and provide staff with training should not depend on your ZIP code. Students deserve to be protected no matter where they go to school in Minnesota. The Safe Schools bill would ensure that teachers, parents and students throughout the state have the resources and training they need to deal with bullying.

Kersten fails to recognize that the bill gives local school districts plenty of flexibility. It doesn’t mandate a statewide, one-size-fits-all bullying policy. While policies need to satisfy certain basic requirements, school districts can develop their own policies in ways that fit their schools, students, families and communities. And if they already have a strong policy that meets the criteria of the proposed legislation, then no changes are necessary.

We can’t afford not to pass the Safe and Supportive Schools Act. The negative effects on a child’s education are many: inability to concentrate, lower grades and less interest in academic achievement.

The mental toll on students who are bullied is also significant and long-term. A 2013 study published in the Journal of the American Medical Association found that those who were bullies and/or victims of bullying in childhood were more likely to experience psychiatric problems as adults. These problems included anxiety, depression, substance abuse and suicide.

The economic repercussions are also lasting. One of the main reasons students miss school is to avoid bullying. Chronic absenteeism leads to increased dropout rates.

Students who drop out not only lose out on their own potential earnings, they also cost Minnesota taxpayers in the long run. Dropouts earn less. Men who drop out of high school earn about $9,600 less per year on average than a high school graduate. Dropouts contribute less tax revenue. Students who don’t receive the needed training and skills in school, including those with disabilities, will depend more on state services instead of contributing to their communities and to the state’s tax base.

Our workplaces suffer as well. Students need to learn how to work effectively with all people, no matter their race, level of disability, sexual orientation, economic class, ethnicity or faith. The inability to respect, understand and relate to a variety of people in school will mean problems on the job later.

All students deserve safe, supportive schools that are free from fear. It’s time to repeal Minnesota’s ineffective law and replace it with a clear, comprehensive statute that protects every one of our kids from bullying, harassment, intimidation and violence.

Let’s not let opinions based on fear and misconceptions get in the way.

 

Steve Larson is senior policy director of The Arc Minnesota. Denise Specht is president of Education Minnesota.

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