Bipartisan bullying bill introduced in House

  • Article by: JENNIFER BROOKS , Star Tribune
  • Updated: January 27, 2012 - 10:58 PM

For the first time, it is defined and standards for disciplining are set.

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Department of Education Chief of Staff Charlene Briner hugged anti-bullying advocate Tammy Aaberg. Aaberg's gay son, Justin committed suicide after being bullied.

Photo: Richard Tsong-Taatarii, Star Tribune

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Minnesota legislators want to beef up the state's anti-bullying law, criticized as one of the nation's weakest.

The state's current statute logs in at just 37 words. So terse, it prohibits bullying without ever actually defining the term. This week, a bipartisan group of House members proposed legislation that would boost the word count to at least 1,000 and set statewide standards for reporting and disciplining bullying.

A number of student suicides between 2009 and 2010 in the Anoka-Hennepin School District cast Minnesota's bullying policies into the national spotlight, and united policymakers from both sides of the aisle.

The legislation introduced this week was proposed in November by DFL State Attorney General Lori Swanson and introduced in the House by Rep. Jim Abeler, R-Anoka.

"We're trying to keep this from becoming as polarizing as it has been in the past," said Abeler, who teamed with Rep. Debra Hilstrom, DFL-Brooklyn Center, to sponsor the bill. "I'd like to create a good dialogue. I think the error we made in the past was in focusing too much on one group [being bullied] or another."

Some of the suicide victims reportedly were tormented by bullies about their apparent sexual orientation, but Abeler believes all students are facing a much harsher world these days and need safeguards in place to protect them from bullies at school and online.

"It's not Mayberry out there anymore. It's not 'Leave It to Beaver,'" said Abeler, a father of six. "It's a different world out there. You can't protect them from everything ... but you have to legislate, sometimes, when there's a gap and they need protection."

The bill defines bullying as in-person or online conduct on school property, on school buses or at any school-sanctioned activity that is "so severe, pervasive or objectively offensive that it substantially interferes with the student's educational opportunities," or places him or her in harm's way or in fear of harm, or substantially disrupts school operations.

First proposed by Swanson, the measure would require educators to report a bullying incident within 24 hours of learning about it, and to develop procedures to document, investigate and discipline the students involved. It was introduced Thursday and referred to the Committee on Education Reform. Its supporters are working to line up Senate sponsors now.

Hilstrom said the bill is modeled after anti-bullying statutes in conservative states.

"North Dakota, Wyoming -- they have a better bullying statute than Minnesota," she said. If the bill passes, Minnesota "would be setting a tone that bullying is not going to be tolerated," she said.

Educator response

It remains to be seen how schools will react to the idea of new state-dictated bullying policies.

Anoka-Hennepin schools Superintendent Dennis Carlson voiced support for the legislation Friday, saying the bill coincides with steps the district has taken.

"We're already doing a lot of what's in this proposed legislation, so it would reinforce the practices our schools use to stop bullying," Carlson said in a statement. "We want every student to feel safe, welcomed and affirmed for who they are. Any legislation that does that is helpful."

The district, the state's largest, has been under scrutiny in the aftermath of the suicides -- including a federal civil rights investigation and a lawsuit, both focusing on how it handled allegations of bullying.

In recent months, the district has spelled out expectations for teachers' response to bullying they witness and provided training sessions, from outlining anti-bullying policies to a recent theatrical incident-and-response to thornier scenarios laid out by teachers. A proposal now before the school board would eliminate the district's Sexual Orientation Curriculum Policy and replace it with one that requires teachers to create a respectful learning environment that "affirms the dignity and self-worth of all students."

"Bullying is an issue for the community and the state," Carlson said in November when Swanson introduced her proposal. "Everyone is going to need to be involved if we're going to eliminate bullying."

Staff writer Maria Elena Baca contributed to this report.

Jennifer Brooks • 651-925-5049

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