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Chris Ware • Lexington Herald-Leader/MCT,

THE GOAL

“The purpose of the bill is not to punish, but to change the behavior and the climate by responding to bullying the most effective way possible … to help students understand the consequences of what they say and do and develop empathy. And we want to make sure that targeted kids are taken care of when bullying occurs and that school staff know how to respond. ’’

Sen. SCOTT DIBBLE, DFL-Minneapolis, author of the proposed Safe and Supportive Schools Act

For safer schools, antibullying law must be strengthened

  • Article by: Editorial Board
  • Star Tribune
  • March 14, 2014 - 7:12 PM

One man said he grew up in a large, poor family and was bullied at school because of how he looked. He added that his own children have been teased and harassed for different reasons.

A teenager recalled considering suicide after relentless bullying about his race and transgender identification at his high school. And a grieving mother spoke emotionally about her 12-year-old son, who took his own life after being bullied.

Those and other stories emerged during a Senate hearing last week on proposed antibullying legislation. The moving testimony demonstrated the need for a stronger statute that will better protect Minnesota kids.

That’s why the proposed Safe and Supportive Schools Act should become law. The current statute doesn’t do enough to help protect students or to give guidance to school staff. Authored by Sen. Scott Dibble and Rep. Jim Davnie, both DFL-Minneapolis, the bill would require schools to develop detailed antibullying policies, educate staff and provide support for all students who have been victims.

The proposal also identifies several groups that are disproportionately targeted because of their race, religion or sexual orientation, consistent with Minnesota human rights laws. Despite the claims of critics, however, the bill clearly applies to all students, no matter what motivates their tormentors.

Responding to concerns raised about the original measure, Dibble wisely amended the bill to tighten the definition of bullying to a pattern of “intimidating, threatening, abusive or harming conduct.”

That means, for example, that one incident of name calling wouldn’t qualify. Bullying is defined as repeated verbal or physical intimidation that prevents a student from feeling safe.

The bill also was amended to require staff training every three years instead of every year, and it dropped the requirement to train volunteers. In addition, district reporting requirements were deleted, though a special advisory board would be set up to study how bullying could be monitored statewide.

Minnesota’s current 37-word statute is one of the weakest antibullying laws in the nation. It was adopted in 2006 and amended in 2008 to include online bullying. But it only requires school boards to come up with policies that address bullying without defining it or giving any guidance on what to do about it.

The proposed law would change that. That’s why it is supported by more than 100 Minnesota organizations that are members of the Safe Schools For All Coalition. The group includes education, disability, youth, religious, LGBT and social-service organizations that have worked to build public support for a stronger law.

Critics maintain that even the amended proposal is overly broad and that it may impinge upon free speech rights. They’re also concerned that complying will be too costly for school districts.

They fail to acknowledge that districts that have been successfully sued for failing to protect students from bullying know that litigation can carry a much higher price tag.

The new requirements would provide tools that could easily be worked into professional development training for staff. And raising awareness among students about the consequences could help students reduce incidents and avoid lawsuits.

A stronger state statute will not eliminate intolerant behavior among kids. But the new law can set a tone, raise awareness and send an important message that bullying won’t be tolerated. And, most important, it would give students and their families more confidence that Minnesota schools are welcoming, safe places to learn for all kids.

© 2014 Star Tribune