Bullying’s a problem. Could this proposed Minnesota law be a solution?
Christopher Magan, Pioneer Press, February 8, 2014 – Della Kurzer-Zlotnick had little experience with bullying until seventh grade, when a classmate asked the St. Paul student about her two mothers, who are lesbians.
“She said it in a way that was kind of surprised and a little disgusted,” Kurzer-Zlotnick remembers. “She held it over me and harassed me for a couple of weeks on Facebook.”
Kurzer-Zlotnick didn’t know where to turn for help, so she never told anyone about the incident. But it has stuck with her.
“I was really afraid,” she said. “I should be able to go to school and feel safe.”
Now a senior at Central High School, Kurzer-Zlotnick is one of several students from across the metro speaking out in support of the Safe and Supportive Minnesota Schools Act. The proposed legislation is a comprehensive update to Minnesota’s anti-bullying law.
It’s expected to be the most passionately debated piece of education policy for the legislative session that begins Feb. 25.
Supporters say that Minnesota’s current law, at 37 words, doesn’t do enough to prevent bullying and that sweeping change is needed.
“Nobody should be OK with the fact that all we have to protect students and make schools safe from bullying is 37 words,” Kurzer-Zlotnick said. “To me, that’s ridiculous.”
Opponents argue that the 20-page bill goes too far by taking away local control and imposing costly new layers of bureaucracy on schools.
“I think it’s a bad bill,” said Crystal Crocker. The Mendota Heights mother of four worries the “one-size fits-all” legislation will degrade parents’ and teachers’ ability to resolve disputes between students and impose a system of anonymous reports with limited parental involvement.
“I’m in total agreement we need to address this,” Crocker said. “We can do so much better for our kids.”
CALLS FOR CHANGE
In 2011, a survey by the U.S. Department of Education found Minnesota’s bullying law was one of the weakest in the nation. The law doesn’t define bullying, doesn’t describe the minimum policy school districts should have to prevent it and fails to specify student groups that are most vulnerable.
The law now says: “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.”
Supporters of the Safe and Supportive Schools bill say those two sentences don’t do enough. Students and teachers need a system to educate them about bullying and how to prevent it. Students who are bullied need better protection and districts need a system to deal with students who are bullying their classmates.
Minnesota has limited data on bullying in its public schools.
The Minnesota Department of Education reports just two school years’ worth of data, and department officials say earlier numbers are unreliable. Data from the 2011-12 school year, the latest available, shows 1,120 disciplinary incidents related to bullying. That’s less than 2 percent of the 60,060 discipline incidents reported statewide.
The Minnesota Student Survey that’s given to students every three years found 53 percent of sixth-graders said they’d been bullied by another student. The survey also found 42 percent of sixth-graders admitted to bullying a classmate.
In 2012, Gov. Mark Dayton created a task force of experts, educators and lawmakers to improve Minnesota’s anti-bullying law. The task force recommendations make up much of the Safe and Supportive Schools bill, which is similar to legislation vetoed by Gov. Tim Pawlenty in 2009.
If enacted, every school district would have to:
— Define bullying as threats, intimidation and harassment that harms a student and interferes with their education.
— Describe student groups who are most likely to experience bullying.
— Require staff, students and school volunteers to receive training on bullying prevention and intervention.
— Create a specific procedure school leaders must follow when bullying is reported, including how data is collected about the incidents.
— Establish a “school climate center” at the Minnesota Department of Education that would serve as a resource for educators to interpret data about bullying and provide training assistance to schools.
Cost estimates for implementing the law range from $5 million to $25 million a year.
QUESTIONS AND CONCERNS
The 20-page bill raises a list of concerns from education advocates and politicians. Cost is often at the top of the list.
Gary Amoroso, executive director of the Minnesota Association of School Administrators, said he hopes lawmakers will consider all the new mandates — such as new evaluation systems for teachers and principals — that school districts must meet without dedicated funding.
Amoroso said school administrators also hope lawmakers will amend the bill to better define what constitutes a bullying incident and which school volunteers will require training.
“When a law is passed, we want to make sure it empowers our schools to continue to work on behalf of students, not create a quagmire of processes,” Amoroso said, adding that his group would work with lawmakers to improve the bill. “From our perspective, this is not a contentious issue; we want our children to be safe.”
Others don’t believe the bill can be fixed.
State Sen. Roger Chamberlain, R-Lino Lakes, the assistant minority leader, says the bill is an unnecessary burden on Minnesota schools. He calls the law a “$25 million unfunded mandate” that will undermine local educators and drag many students through an unnecessary bureaucracy.
“There is no reason something Johnny does in fourth grade when he’s 8 or 9 should follow him through high school or college,” Chamberlain said. “This is the most destructive piece of K-12 legislation in 40 years.”
Jessica Zittlow, spokeswoman for the Minnesota Catholic Conference, worries the legislation will dictate how private schools handle student discipline and invade students’ privacy by eventually requiring schools to report information to the state.
“One-size-fits-all reporting mandates, like this so-called ‘Safe Schools’ act proposes, undermines a community’s ability to respond to the unique needs of their students,” Zittlow said in a statement.
Private-school advocates also take issue with the bullying bill because it provides specific protections for lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgendered, or LGBT, students’ “sexual orientation and gender identity.”
The Minnesota Catholic Conference’s legislative platform for the 2013-14 legislative session states: “Combating bullying should never be a pretext to impose an agenda of groups of people, or to undermine the rights of parents to bestow their religious or moral values on their children.”
Jason Adkins, executive director of the conference, said they oppose bullying of all students and support strengthening Minnesota’s anti-bullying laws. He sees the Safe and Supportive Schools Act as a way to “mandate new curriculum and programming, particularly the type promoted by (LGBT rights group) OutFront Minnesota, which is the central activist group pushing for this bill,” Adkins said in a statement.
Jefferson Fietek, an Anoka Middle School teacher who had a student who was bullied and committed suicide, said bullying policies that do not specifically protect those who are most vulnerable are not successful.
“By leaving a group out, it sends a message that that group is OK to target,” Fietek said. “I’d love, in an ideal world, to say be good to everybody. We really need to be clear that this means this group, too.”
Fietek believes a stronger state anti-bullying law could have helped students in the Anoka-Hennepin School District. In 2012, to settle a lawsuit that received national attention, leaders in the district agreed to take new steps to better protect gay and lesbian students from bullying.
“I do think it would have prevented a lot of what happened,” Fietek said.
Last spring, the Safe and Supportive Minnesota Schools Act was on its way to becoming law until the threat of a filibuster by Republicans in the state Senate derailed the bill in the last hours of the legislative session.
State Sen. Scott Dibble, DFL-Minneapolis, who sat on the bullying task force and sponsored the bill, dismisses many of the criticisms of his legislation. He says the bill will empower educators by helping them better understand how to deal with bullying in their schools.
Most of the policy decisions continue to be left up to local district leaders, Dibble says, but the legislation will bring consistency. He doesn’t believe the act will be as costly to implement as some estimates show.
Blocking the bill last year was a move by Republicans to satisfy their constituents who oppose the measure during a legislative session dominated by DFL priorities, Dibble said.
“Its pure politics, and kids suffer,” he said.
He’s prepared for an “ugly, drawn-out and unpleasant” debate. This time Dibble has more than 90 groups including Education Minnesota, the state teachers union, behind the measure.
“When I go out and hear from young people and parents, what I hear is there is a lot of bullying and very little response and prevention,” Dibble said. “Many students are not going to school multiple days a week because they just don’t feel safe.”
The other side is just as adamant the bill be voted down.
Sen. Chamberlain says DFLers are trying to push a flawed law through the Legislature. He believes the bill is an unnecessary overreach that will harm schools.
Efforts by Republicans and school advocates to amend the bill or offer updates to the existing law have generally been rebuffed, he said.
“I’ve not heard from anyone saying we need this bill. Apparently, Senator Dibble is in charge of the caucus. He’s not much interested in talking to me or others in the state,” Chamberlain said. “A lot of Minnesotans don’t know about this bill; when we tell them about it, they are going to be concerned.”