Improve law and target bullying

Published 10:21 am Wednesday, December 18, 2013

It seems like something we could all agree on: Minnesota schoolkids should be able attend school without fear of being bullied, harassed or intimidated. And if it does happen, they should be confident that something will be done about it.

That’s the message hundreds of citizens have sent in recent meetings and rallies in St. Paul, Minneapolis and Duluth. It’s time for lawmakers to get off the dime and pass more comprehensive antibullying rules. Often this state has been a leader on human rights and education innovation. But on this issue, we’re bringing up the rear.

With its paltry 37-word statute, Minnesota has one of the weakest antibullying laws in the nation. Adopted by the Legislature in 2006 and amended in 2008 to include cyberbullying, it requires school boards to adopt policies that address intimidation and bullying in all forms. But the law doesn’t outline the conditions under which a school has authority over student conduct, and it prohibits bullying without actually defining it.

Email newsletter signup

During the past several sessions, new legislation was proposed but not passed. But earlier this year, Rep. Jim Davnie and Sen. Scott Dibble, both Minneapolis DFLers, introduced the Safe and Supportive Minnesota Schools Act. It would require schools to develop detailed antibullying policies and set up protections for students who face harassment, including those bullied because of their race, religion or sexual orientation.

More than 100 Minnesota organizations want a more comprehensive law and have said so in recent meetings. The Safe Schools For All Coalition includes education, disability, youth, religious, LGBT and social service organizations.

Education Minnesota, the 70,000-member teachers union, is among them. Educators who are on the front lines with students understand the challenges of teaching and learning in a hostile, unsafe environment.

Critics of changing the law say the proposed legislation is overly broad and may impinge upon free speech rights. They worry about school liability and lawsuits, and that minor disagreements between students could be blown up into court cases. Others believe that naming specific groups that have been targeted leaves out other students.

But all of those concerns have been addressed and disputed. The language of the proposed legislation clearly applies to all students. Schools already are subject to legal action, as several high-profile court cases have shown. The new requirements would include training and other tools that would help teachers and staff work with students to reduce incidents and avoid lawsuits.

Earlier this year, a governor’s task force outlined needed changes in the law that were incorporated into the proposed bill. The panel recommended that state statutes should have clear definitions of bullying, harassment and intimidation, and it enumerated protections for groups that are most likely to be bullied or harassed. The task force also called for training and resources for prevention and intervention, consistent reporting procedures, and the use of remedial responses that emphasize restorative justice.

Under the proposed law, school districts could develop their own plans that meet the state guideline or adopt a model plan provided by the state. Of course, simply having a more comprehensive law would not immediately change behaviors and eliminate bullying. But the law would set a tone, raise awareness and give students and school staff more tools to address the problem.

As any student survey will confirm, bullying, harassment and intimidation continue to cause problems in our schools. And we know that those behaviors can contribute to terrible outcomes, including fear of attending school, depression and even suicide.

Minnesota should join the vast majority of other states that have meaningful antibullying statutes. During the 2014 session, lawmakers should adopt a more comprehensive law that will give educators the tools they need to make our schools safer.