Leaders mixed on anti-bullying bill

Published 10:27 am Wednesday, April 9, 2014

Poppe, Sparks voted against measure, which Dayton is expected to sign today

Local education leaders are more comfortable with the anti-bullying bill that Gov. Mark Dayton is expected to sign into law Wednesday, but some are still waiting to see how the new regulations affect districts.

Austin Superintendent David Krenz said the anti-bullying bill significantly decreased potentially difficult regulations as it went through the Minnesota House of Representatives early Wednesday and the Senate last week.

“It really will be much easier to work with,” he said.

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Krenz also said Austin Public Schools already has most of the requirements in place under the anti-bullying bill, though he pointed out that “school districts have been dealing with bullying long before our legislators did.”

“We’ll have to tweak a few things,” he said.

The Minnesota House voted early Wednesday to pass a bill aimed at strengthening the state’s anti-bullying law, sending the measure to Gov. Mark Dayton to sign.

After nearly 12 hours of debate, the House passed the bill on a 69-63 vote that fell mostly along party lines. The Senate passed the bill last week, and Dayton had said he would sign it this week.

Rep. Jeanne Poppe, DFL-Austin, and Sen. Dan Sparks, DFL-Austin, both voted against the bill and against party lines. Rep. Shannon Savick, DFL-Wells, voted for the bill.

The measure would require school districts to track and investigate cases of bullying and require schools to better train staff and teachers on how to prevent it. Current law requires school districts to have a bullying policy but omits details on what the policy should contain.

“This provides a strong set of tools to create a strong local anti-bullying policy and create safe educational climates in Minnesota,” said Rep. Jim Davnie, DFL-Minneapolis, the bill’s sponsor.

Yet when the bill was first introduced, it included several reporting and curriculum measures that divided parents, educators and experts. On a local level, members of the Community Against Bullying thoroughly discussed the bill, according to organizer Danielle Nesvold.

“We respectfully discussed and agreed to disagree on aspects of the bill,” she said.

Nesvold said she is waiting to see how the law is enforced, as there are parts of the law that she feels would take control of bullying enforcement out of school hands and minimize student empowerment through the community.

“We as parents need to help empower our kids with the tools to cope, to learn to be strong, to do what’s right,” she said.

Nesvold also had concerns over some of the bullying curriculum that could be taught in schools. She was concerned schools would give sex education to elementary students that may be too young to understand whether they identify as heterosexual, lesbian, gay, bisexual or transgender.

“It talks about sexuality there to young kids and that’s not something their brains are able to comprehend,” she said.

Krenz said many of the curriculum issues had been resolved down in the bill’s current form, and had more to do with training than anything else.

House members who opposed the measure argued that it would do little to reduce bullying, would remove local control from school districts and would be too expensive to implement.

“We’ll have created an expectation in law that children can go to school and be free from bullying, that they can be free from feeling bad, that everything will be perfectly harmonious in school,” Rep. Linda Runbeck, R-Circle Pines, said.

Many House members echoed Runbeck’s comments, suggesting that standing up to bullies is a key learning moment in the development of any human being. Republicans also repeatedly expressed concern that the measure would infringe on First Amendment rights.

“This bill deals with behavior, not belief,” Davnie countered.

Others expressed outrage that the bill did not require parents to be notified when a child has been bullied. Instead, the new law would leave that decision up to the discretion of school administrators.

The bill defines bullying as behavior that interrupts another student’s opportunity to learn or participate in a school activity, prohibits false reports of bullying and requires corroboration of bullying accusations.

—The Associated Press contributed to this report.