An antibullying policy considered one of the weakest in the country was scrapped by the Minnesota Senate on Thursday in favor of more stringent requirements that would begin to crack down on practices that have tormented some students to the point of suicide.
Every school district would be expected to develop and enforce plans to reduce bullying and would have to make regular progress reports to the state. The state itself would be required to develop a model plan.
Wearing a backward Minnesota Gophers cap and clutching a “Safe Schools” sign to her chest, Elise Coffin, 17, had her eyes glued to a telecast just outside the Senate chambers as members prepared to vote.
“I feel like there’s still thousands of kids out there that don’t have a voice and can’t speak up for themselves,” said Coffin, a Duluth East High School senior who is gay and who has been bullied. “If we can get a voice from legislators, it’s going to mean a lot more.”
Coffin laughed at opponents’ suggestion that the bill provides special treatment for gay and lesbian students. “People need to take a reality check and go through what it’s like to be an out kid in high school,” she said. “Special privilege? No. I think we’re finally going to be treated like we deserve, instead of second-class citizens.”
Strengthening the antibullying law has been a decade-long goal of gay rights activists and others concerned about bullying that affects a broad spectrum of students perceived as different. But the pushback from opponents has been strong.
Much of the lobbying energy behind the bill has been courtesy of OutFront Minnesota, the state’s chief gay rights group and a driving force behind last year’s successful effort to legalize gay marriage in Minnesota. The antibullying bill pushes some of the same cultural hot buttons as that debate, with religious and socially conservative groups expressing worry that students could get labeled bullies for expressing views learned from their parents at a church.
‘Too-much top down’
Just before the largely party-line vote, Sue Colgrove of Maple Grove looked down from her perch in the Senate gallery and prepared for the inevitable.
“It’s just too much top-down,” said Colgrove, who is raising three school-age grandchildren. “They’re going to set up an entirely new state department for this at the cost of what, $40 million? If it would actually solve this problem, I could care less about the money. But it’s truly not going to stop it.”
Colgrove said she’s prepared to work with her grandchildren’s school district, but said that if any detriment comes to her children as a result of the bill, she would be forced to home-school them.
When the bill passed 36-31, tearful supporters erupted in cheers after a debate that had spanned five hours. The bill’s sponsor, Sen. Scott Dibble, DFL-Minneapolis, was greeted with backslaps and hugs as he pumped his fists in the air.
“It doesn’t matter for a kid based on where they live, they should be able to expect to go to school feeling safe,” Dibble said.
Background on bill
A number of provisions in earlier versions came out. The bill no longer requires schools to keep data and report it. They won’t be subject to mandatory training of volunteers. Districts will not have to adopt the state’s model policy unless they decline to devise one of their own.
The bill defines bullying behavior in part as behavior, words or images that could interfere with a safe, supportive learning environment; that instill fear or intimidation, or that have a detrimental effect on the physical, social or emotional health of a student. It also addresses cyberbullying.
Public charter schools would be expected to follow the bill’s requirements, but private and home schools would not.
House Speaker Paul Thissen, DFL-Minneapolis, said his chamber, which approved similar legislation last year, is likely to quickly send the bill to Gov. Mark Dayton, who is expected to sign it.
“I support the stronger protections in the antibullying bill … to provide local school districts with the guidance and support they need to make it very clear that bullying will not be allowed in our schools,” Dayton said.
A number of states passed legislation to crack down on bullying toward the end of the last decade, but Minnesota activists were dealt a major setback in 2009 when former Gov. Tim Pawlenty, a Republican, vetoed an antibullying measure.
Activists’ passions had been ignited about that time by a series of high-profile incidents of alleged bullying and suicides among students in the Anoka-Hennepin school district, which ultimately resulted in intervention by the U.S. Department of Justice. That led to a legal settlement that forced the state’s largest district to get more involved in policing harassment against students.
Issue of local control
Republicans raised concerns that the legislation would put school officials in the position of choosing sides in what can be murky student disputes.
Republicans also raised the issue of local control.
“We’re telling school administrators, teachers, school board members, ‘We don’t trust you to take care of this,’ ” said Senate Minority Leader David Hann, R-Eden Prairie. “If we can’t trust those school board members to do this, how can we trust them to spend the hundreds of millions of dollars we give them every year?”
Republicans voted unanimously against the bill and were joined by three DFLers: Sens. Lyle Koenen of Clara City, Dan Sparks of Austin and LeRoy Stumpf of Plummer.
The bill’s supporters said that even if they never stamp out harassment among students, the proposal would move the climate at schools in a positive direction.
“We hope we can create a world that is less cruel for our kids,” said Sen. Patricia Torres Ray, DFL-Minneapolis.