Initial state policy on bullying in 2005 left a lot up local school districts “Each school board shall adopt a written policy prohibiting intimidation and bullying of any student. The policy shall address intimidation and bullying in all forms, including, but not limited to, electronic forms and forms involving Internet use.”
“Each school board shall adopt a written policy prohibiting intimidation and bullying of any student. The policy shall address intimidation and bullying in all forms, including, but not limited to, electronic forms and forms involving Internet use.”
For nearly a decade, the policy listed above directed how Minnesota’s public education system addressed the issue of bullying, as the rule, initially approved in 2005, provided a framework for schools – allowing individual districts to establish their own more in-depth policies. Having a policy merely 37 words in length became the mantra of those pushing for new bullying policy, and in the end those who spoke up got what they wanted in what is known as the Safe and Supportive Minnesota Schools Act of 2014.
By a 36-31 vote in the Senate and a 69-63 vote in the House, the bill moved on to the desk of Gov. Mark Dayton, who signed the bill into law April 9.
“Minnesota’s schools should be safe and supportive places for everyone,” said Dayton in a statement released soon after making the bill law in Minnesota. “This anti-bullying legislation will make it very clear that bullying is not to be allowed in our schools.”
It was Dayton who moved the idea forward in February 2012 when he established a task force on the prevention of school bullying. That task force, which was made up of parents, community members, education experts, health care professionals, school administrators and policymakers, offered a recommendation the following August, and that provided the guidance legislators used to create the new policy which dwarfs the previous policy but more clearly defines what bullying is and how school districts are to address it. Under the law, bullying means “intimidating, threatening, abusive or harming conduct that is objectively offensive…” in which there is a real or perceived imbalance of power between those engaging in the behavior and those being targeted.
According to Josh Collins, communications director for the Minnesota Department of Education, school districts must have the new policy in place for the start of the 2014-15 school year.
“Minnesota had one of the weakest bullying policies in the nation,” said Collins.
Collins added a strong coalition supported the new policy, adding those proponents were instrumental in the passage of the Safe and Supportive Minnesota Schools Act.
Among those supporting the new policy was Education Minnesota, which represents educators across Minnesota.
“Education Minnesota was a strong supporter, and we partnered with others working hard to get it approved,” said Denise Specht, Education Minnesota president. “One of the biggest reasons Education Minnesota supported this policy was because we believe students learn better in an environment where they feel welcome and can come to school without feeling afraid. This bill is a very good thing for students and for Minnesota.”
Specht said the new policy provides the tools educators desired, as the new policy requires school districts to provide training for staff regarding the latest bullying issues.
“The training provided to staff is something they want and need,” Specht said.
Education Minnesota, said Specht, is going to be instrumental in developing that training working in conjunction with the Minnesota Department of Education to provide the most up-to-date information to educators on a consistent basis.
According to Collins, a key element of the new bullying policy is the establishment of what is known as a school safety technical assistance council and a technical assistance center within the Minnesota Department of Education.
The role of the center, said Collins, is going to be drafting the policy school districts are required to have in place by this coming fall and in keeping a record of bullying as it is reported. He added the establishment that center is still in the works, and the makeup of the council that is going to continue the dialogue regarding bullying is also still in process. He said the council is going to be made up of representatives from a variety of entities, such as education, corrections, school boards, public safety, human services and health. The council is going to include 23 members. with six open positions selected by the Commissioner of the Minnesota Department of Education. Those who may be interested in applying for a spot on that council can visit the Minnesota Secretary of State Web site under open appointments at www.sos.state.mn.us. Applications had to be submitted by June 24.
While the department of education is currently working on its policy, the Minnesota School Board Association has established a policy framework for school districts to approve. Kirk Schneidawind, Minnesota School Board Association executive director, said the association creates policies for school districts once legislation has been approved in St. Paul.
“We try to make a workable policy for school districts,” said Schneidawind, adding there are a lot of pieces required of districts under the new legislation.
Schneidawind said there have been concerns raised at the school district level about the policy, especially as it relates to reporting requirements, and he said finding answers for those concerns is likely only going to happen as the bill is implemented.
“Time will tell,” he said. “It’s hard to project what potential issues might arise.”
Schneidawind added he thinks the bill can help to create a more positive culture in schools.
While there were many groups who expressed support of the bullying bill, there were some who spoke out against it. The bill, which was approved on party lines, raised many concerns from organizations, such as the Minnesota Family Council.
“We opposed the legislation for a variety of reasons,” said Autumn Leva, director of legislative affairs and communications for the Minnesota Family Council. “We feel this bill takes control away from local schools and from parents.”
Leva said the Minnesota Family Council supports the idea of creating a safe environment for students, but she said the bill usurps the authority of local leadership and gives far too much control to those in St. Paul.
Leva also said the Minnesota Office of Budget and Management has determined the new law is going to cost schools in the state $20 million annually making it just one more unfunded mandate for local schools. Another estimated $1 million is going to be required each year to operate the new technical assistance center as it gathers bullying data, reviews school policies and develops training.
Leva said the Minnesota Family Council was supportive of a different bullying bill she said mirrored existing legislation already in place in North Dakota, which provided a much simpler approach and left more of the control and decision making in the hands of local schools and parents.
Leva said the bill specifically lists 19 groups of students who would be protected, adding the fear she believes is going to be created as a result of the new policy is going to hamper freedom of speech and the right for kids to express their opinions.
Leva also said another major concern for schools is the potential litigation the bill opens up, which she said down the road could potentially become a big problem.
“Bullying is such a personal thing,” she said. “Nobody wants it to happen. Just because we have created a law that has more words in it does not mean bullying is not going to happen anymore. What we need is the right approach, and this bill does not provide that.”
In the coming months, school boards are going to be introducing the new policies as part of school board meetings, with the intent of having those policies in place for the start of the new school year.
Those policies would then be incorporated into school handbooks which are provided for families allowing them to see what the policy requires. Parents are going to be encouraged to discuss the policy to help their children understand bullying, so they can help become part of that safe and supportive school setting.