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Tim Pugmire, MPR News 90.3 FM, Published March 03 2014

Hundreds rally in favor of legislation to prevent bullying in schools

ST. PAUL – Students from throughout Minnesota gathered at the state Capitol on Monday to show their support for legislation to prevent bullying in schools.

Many spoke during an afternoon rally and shared stories about being bullied. They also called on lawmakers to take action this session to make sure other students aren’t victimized.

A bill sponsored by state Sen. Scott Dibble, DFL-Minneapolis, would spell out some of the reasons students might be the target of bullies, ranging from race and religion to physical appearance and sexual orientation. The Senate Finance Committee is scheduled to take up the measure Thursday.

But social conservatives and Republican legislators are wary of the bill, which gay and lesbian advocacy groups are leading the push for.

At the rally, Elise Coffin, a senior at Duluth East High School, told the crowd that she has been bullied for being a lesbian.

“This bill needs to be passed because we can’t afford to have kids across our state continue to show up to school in fear,” she said. “We need to stand up for respect. We need to stand up for equality and we need to stand up for what’s right and pass this bill.”

Dibble, the chief author of the bill, said every student deserves to be safe and supported in school, no matter where they live.

“We need clear definitions to know what we’re talking about,” Dibble said. “We need protections for all students, training and resources for the adults in the buildings, guidelines for best practices and help for schools.”

Autumn Leva, director of legislative affairs and communications for the Minnesota Family Council said the bill’s definition of bullying is too broad.

“It could encompass a student even expressing some sort of political or religious belief that is even just offensive to another student,” Leva said. “Well, we’d be offending each other all day long through expressions of belief, and I don’t think that’s what bullying is. We need to be very careful in how we define that issue.”

A previous version of the bill made it through the House and Senate in 2009 but was later vetoed by Republican Gov. Tim Pawlenty.

Last year, House Democrats passed the “Safe and Supportive Minnesota Schools Act” measure without any Republican support. It never received a vote in the Senate.

Senate Majority Leader Tom Bakk of Cook said he expects it to pass this session, but he doesn’t know exactly what the final measure will look like. Bakk, DFL-Cook, said he’d like to see some changes that Republicans could support.

“A couple of the issues that we’re kind of struggling with is kind of the definition. What’s the definition of bullying?” Bakk said. “Then the other thing is isolated events. Some isolated incident shouldn’t be considered bullying. So, we need to find some language that indicates bullying needs to be some kind of a repetitive behavior.”

If the goal is bipartisan support, Senate Minority Leader David Hann said other issues must also be addressed. Hann, R-Eden Prairie, said GOP lawmakers don’t want to impose a costly mandate on schools, and they don’t want state bureaucrats in charge of enforcement.

“I think it’s a little presumptuous for us in the Legislature to say we know better than school boards how to deal with the issues surrounding bullying. Nobody is in favor of bullying,” Hann said. “But there’s no question that you need to have community support. You need to work with the parents in the community. You need to work with administrations and staff, and I think it is undoubtedly the case that a vast majority if not all the school districts have very successful policies and they’re working well with them.”

Dibble confirmed that he’s working on some modifications, including clarifications in definition of bullying, training requirements and reporting procedures. But Dibble stressed that his goal remains to create an effective policy. He said Republicans will have to decide whether they can support it.

“I think that they’ve created a political environment in which it’s hard for them to walk back some of their rhetoric,” Dibbled said of GOP legislators. “I think that’s unfortunate. But I hope that they figure out that interjecting adult agendas and kind of distracting elements isn’t useful, and I hope that some of them understand that we really do need to do this for young people. They’ve been asking us for years and years and years to address this issue, and we’ve failed them.”