The state has waited too long, but the pieces are in place for progress.
For Minnesota to be successful, we need all of our children to be successful. This includes those of all heights, weights, races, religions, ethnic backgrounds, sexual orientations, genders and abilities. We cannot differentiate the members of the football team and the members of the marching band when it comes to how we treat our kids.
While Minnesota has done much to try to raise achievement, including establishing academic standards, requiring high-stakes standardized tests, increasing scrutiny over teachers and principals, and other initiatives, we have little success to show for all that work. But we now have the opportunity to position the state as a leader in the next generation of education reform by focusing on building strong, safe and supportive school climates for all students.
Recently the Safe and Supportive Minnesota Schools Act (HF826 and SF783) passed both the House and Senate Education Policy committees. We are the chief authors of this legislation. It will, for the first time, provide our schools with an antibullying framework to protect and keep kids safe, assist local schools and school districts in developing comprehensive local policies, and establish a resource center at the Department of Education to serve parents, educators and communities.
Providing safe and supportive school environments is a necessary precursor for learning. Minnesota has long been noted for having the weakest antibullying statute in the country. We have waited too long to address bullying that occurs in schools across our state. Quite honestly, we had already waited too long when a 2010 survey conducted by the state Departments of Health and Education revealed that 13 percent of students reported being bullied once or more a week.
Over these past few years, we have been deeply moved by the courage shown by the young people who were willing to step forward and tell their stories of pain and marginalization. We have felt the frustration of parents and teachers who wanted to help but who — lacking resources and support — were powerless.
We must ensure that every kid who goes to school in Minnesota knows that he or she is valued, will be safe and will have an equal shot in life. Passing strong and comprehensive antibullying legislation is necessary if we are to improve our schools and ensure that our children have the support that they need to succeed academically and socially.
Thankfully, we have a governor who understands this problem and the need for a solution. Gov. Mark Dayton’s Task Force on the Prevention of School Bullying has put forward comprehensive recommendations, which form the template for the Safe and Supportive Schools Act.
The Safe and Supportive Schools Act would replace the nation’s weakest antibullying law with comprehensive measures designed to establish safe and supportive school climates and provide educators with tools when bullying does occur.
This means providing clear definitions of bullying, harassment and intimidation; providing training and resources for students, staff and volunteers, and putting forward specific procedures for schools to report bullying incidents. It also means an emphasis on restorative responses that work with bullies on changing their behavior rather than simply suspending the student.
It will no longer be acceptable to turn our backs.