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Tim Post, MPR News 90.3 FM, Published December 30 2012

New Minnesota bullying law push planned for next session

ST. PAUL – Advocates of stronger anti-bullying measures in Minnesota say they’ll push again for a new bullying law during the upcoming legislative session.

They have tried and failed several times in recent years to rewrite a law that is considered one of the weakest anti-bullying statutes in the nation.

But a task force last summer urged action, and backers are putting a new emphasis on guidelines to help school districts prevent bullying, as opposed to punishment. Some advocates say there’s reason to believe a new bullying law has a good chance of passing this time around.

Rep. Jim Davnie, DFL-Minneapolis, and Sen. Scott Dibble, DFL-Minneapolis, are putting together what they call the “2013 Safe Schools for All” bill.

It will have “a greater emphasis on positive school climate overall, and providing schools and school districts with the resources to be able to develop those policies and staff development opportunities.”

The task force was appointed to look into the issue in part because of a series of student suicides around the state. Some of the students had been bullied because they were gay or perceived to be gay.

The group suggested scrapping the state’s current law, which, at 37 words, is one of the shortest in the nation. It requires school districts to have a bullying policy but doesn’t offer guidance on what it should contain.

The group suggested a new law that would require schools to put together bullying prevention efforts, investigate and report incidents to the state and better train staff on how to handle bullying.

“I think a combination of both the recommendations of the task force along with the push and motivation from the public I think will help move this initiative forward,” said Walter Roberts Jr., professor of counseling at Minnesota State University in Mankato and co-chair of the task force.

The bill’s chances also may have improved because the state House, Senate and governor’s office will all be under DFL control.

In recent years Republican lawmakers have blocked the passage of a bullying law in part over concerns that it would take away local control.

That remains a concern of Rep. Sondra Erickson, R-Princeton.

“I still believe that districts should design their own policies based on their student population and their communities with input from parents and teachers and school leaders,” Erickson said.

Other lawmakers say that local control has already resulted in a mish-mash of different anti-bullying efforts around the state.

"Our young people don't need different approaches," said Rep. Carlos Mariani, DFL-St. Paul, who will chair the House Education Policy Committee. "They need a high standard approach that guarantees their safety."

Mariani wants his committee to take up a bullying bill early in the session.

Just how ambitious the new measure is could depend on the state budget picture.

Mariani acknowledges the reporting, training and bullying prevention efforts of a new law could get expensive. Since the state is facing more than a $1 billion dollar shortfall, the result could be a slimmed-down version.

"We can certainly move forward on a very strong set of expectations," Mariani said. "(We can) say to school districts 'You'll have to adopt and implement very strong protections for children in the classroom.'"

Mariani says once that's in place, the Legislature could add and fund new anti-bullying requirements in future years.

Some Minnesota school administrators have already expressed concern that a new bullying law will saddle them will lots of new duties, but won't include funding to pay for them.