A handpicked collection of 15 prominent Minnesotans got to work Monday on an ambitious task: creating a state where school kids are free from bullying, harassment and intimidation.
Gov. Mark Dayton's Task Force on the Prevention of School Bullying -- an enthusiastic group culled from a pool of more than 80 -- met for the first time, with members representing education, mental health, politics, diversity advocacy and law.
"We are beginning to acknowledge the fact that bullying is a public health issue, a mental health issue and a physical health issue," said Walter Roberts, an anti-bullying expert from Minnesota State University, Mankato. "Reports are coming in at such a level that we can't ignore it anymore."
Last year, a national watchdog group gave Minnesota's bullying law a C-minus, the lowest passing grade in the country. In the course of a week last fall, Minnesota Attorney General Lori Swanson announced her intention to strengthen anti-bullying statutes, and Dayton signed the executive order creating the task force. It was charged with researching the issue, drafting recommendations and submitting a report to him by Aug. 1.
Task force members noted that bullying prevention is an urgent topic, not just in Minnesota but across the country, in the wake of a spate of bullying-related teen suicides nationwide. The issue has had attention from U.S. Sen. Al Franken, D-Minn., who is sponsoring an anti-bullying measure in Washington, D.C. Earlier this month, the Anoka-Hennepin School District settled a widely followed anti-bullying lawsuit with a pledge to make schools safer for all students.
The task force didn't change the world at its first meeting, at the state Department of Education offices in Roseville. But it appointed Roberts and Julie Hertzog, director of PACER's National Bullying Prevention Center, to be co-chairs. They also discussed goals and reviewed the laws and policies already on the books.
Minnesota's 37-word anti-bullying statute instructs school boards to adopt their own policies barring intimidation and bullying, and requires them to include electronic media. The task force learned that although there are more references to harassment on the books in Minnesota, few apply to children. In fact, more laws protect animals from harassment, noted assistant education commissioner Rose Hermodson, who led much of the meeting.
They also came up with a host of questions: How would they draw a balance between state standards and local school control? Would their recommendations have more to do with legal remedies or creating more accepting school climates? How would they draw from the state's diversity?
They also pledged to take to the road, to seek testimony from all four corners of the state, preferably before the end of this school year.
Looking at change
Members acknowledge the task is daunting. Change is difficult. A 2009 bipartisan effort to expand the state's anti-bullying law to mention more protected classes passed the Legislature; Gov. Tim Pawlenty subsequently vetoed it, saying that existing law was adequate because it prohibits bullying "against any student for any reason."
"Minnesotans historically have been reluctant to address this issue," Roberts said Monday. "It's the culture of our state, as well as the culture of our schools."
State Education Commissioner Brenda Cassellius stopped her note-taking and turned to him. "Do you think it's 'Minnesota Nice'? We don't want to somehow admit this is a problem?"
"There's another phrase for that," Roberts replied. "It's called 'denial.'"
Others theorized that people minimize the effects of bullying and harassment, or miss the connection between school climate and academic achievement, or pick up the incivility in politics and the media, or get lost in the sheer complexity of the issue.
"Today my kid is the victim, but next week he's the bully," Rep. Jim Davnie, DFL-Minneapolis, said rhetorically. "Parents are confused about how to respond."
Still, members spoke with hope about the future.
GLBT activist Jacob Reitan told other members that he was bullied as a student in Mankato.
"This task force can do a lot," he said, "to make students in Minnesota know they are affirmed and cared for by the people in this room and the governor of Minnesota."
Maria Elena Baca • 612-673-4409