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Tim Post, MPR News 90.3 FM, Published January 16 2014

Tougher anti-bullying law expected to be on Minnesota Legislature's agenda

When the Minnesota Legislature convenes next month, lawmakers are expected to take up a bill designed to strengthen the state’s anti-bullying law, often described as one of the weakest in the nation.

The House passed just such a measure late in the last session, but the Senate did not schedule a vote before adjourning.

That surprised many who thought the state was going to get a new and tougher anti-bullying bill on the books. Democratic Gov. Mark Dayton supported the DFL-sponsored bill and his party led both the House and the Senate.

This year, supporters say they’ll work harder to so that it lands on the governor’s desk.

The bill would replace the state’s current anti-bullying law – just 37 words long – which requires school districts to have a bullying policy in place, but doesn’t offer guidance on what it should entail. The proposed law would require schools to better investigate all cases of bullying and train teachers to spot and prevent bullying.

In a 2011 investigation, MPR News found that the state’s weak bullying law resulted in inconsistent policies at schools across the state. Many students, parents, educators and experts say that puts Minnesota kids at greater risk of being targeted by bullies.

About 100 organizations across the state are working to pass the bill. They include the state teacher’s union, Education Minnesota, the gay and lesbian advocacy group OutFront Minnesota and PACER, which advocates for children with disabilities.

Supporters also are asking students who have been bullied, like 18-year old Della Kurzer-Zlotnick, to speak out.

Kurzer-Zlotnick, a senior at St. Paul’s Central High School, said she faced bullying in seventh grade, largely snide comments from another student because her two moms are lesbians. She didn’t tell her parents or anyone at the school that she was being bullied.

“I couldn’t show them any physical scars, so I didn’t think there was anything they could do about it,” she said.

Kurzer-Zlotnick said if Minnesota had a stronger bullying law in place five years ago, she would have sought help.

Not everyone agrees a stronger law is necessary.

Some religious groups opposed the bill last year because it included protections for gay and lesbian students. Opponents argued the additional protection would push a social agenda.

State Rep. Jim Davnie, one of the bill’s authors, said it’s important for the bill to focus on protecting students who are most likely to be targeted.

“If the school isn’t safe for the kid who’s coming out as gay or lesbian, or the kid who’s questioning their sexuality or the kid with the learning disability or the cognitive disability, it’s not safe for any of the other kids in the schoolroom either,” said Davnie, DFL-Minneapolis.

Opponents of the measure also are expected to raise objections to the measure’s cost. By some estimates, its price tag could reach $25 million a year.

School district officials say they might need to hire extra staff to handle bullying investigations, pay for new anti-bullying programs and set aside time to train all staff on how to handle bullying. The bill does not include funding to help school districts pay for new programs and training.

State Sen. Richard Chamberlain, R-Lino Lakes said the bill amounts to an unfunded mandate.

Chamberlain said the bill also would saddle districts with extra work, requiring staff to track and investigate cases that might not rise to the level of bullying.

“The vagueness in the law is very troubling,” he said. “And I can’t imagine teachers and others trying to deal with that.”