The mothers of two Minnesota teenagers who have committed suicide will speak at a conference about bullying in Washington today.
Tammy Aaberg and Tricia Behnke both said bullying contributed to their children taking their lives.
Earlier this year, an MPR news investigation found Minnesota has one of the nation's weakest bullying laws and a patchwork of local policies. Since that report, not much has changed.
In the 14 months since her son Justin Aaberg hanged himself in his bedroom, Tammy Aaberg said she's heard from Justin's friends about the bullying and harassment he endured for being gay.
She's spent much of her time advocating for better laws and policies on local, state and federal levels, and her efforts continue today at the summit in Washington.
"I hope that it gives people more ideas into what's going on, and how school districts are really covering things up and twisting things to their advantage to make them look better, so that there can be some laws passed to make schools more accountable," Aaberg said.
Aaberg said she's received great support from people and has heard of several grassroots efforts now raising awareness of bullying. But in some ways, her efforts to change policy haven't amounted to much.
Justin Aaberg attended school in the Anoka-Hennepin district. Tammy Aaberg continues to lobby the district to drop a policy that instructs teachers to remain neutral if the subject of sexual orientation comes up in class.
At the federal level, she supports Minnesota Senator Al Franken's efforts to add sexual orientation to the civil rights protections for school students. But that's also in limbo because Franken says he wants that bill be part of whatever replaces the No Child Left Behind law, which has no apparent successor yet.
On the state level, at least six states have enacted new bullying laws or updated existing laws — but not Minnesota. That leaves Walter Roberts frustrated and dismayed.
"Our policymakers; our professional organizations; our school boards in many instances are foot-dragging," Roberts said.
Roberts, a professor at Minnesota State University - Mankato, has long studied bullying and has tried for more than seven years to persuade lawmakers to change the state's bullying and harassment laws.
"I really am beginning to wonder if the state of Minnesota has the will to truly address this issue to make lives better for kids," Roberts said.
In May 2011, MPR News found Minnesota's state bullying law, at just 37 words, is one of the weakest in the nation, even failing to define 'bullying.' Because bullying can be interpreted differently a statewide definition is crucial, researchers said
Neither does the existing law address a growing legal issue surrounding online, or cyberbullying, and whether schools should respond to bullying that happens on in the Internet and off-campus.
Currently, the law only requires that school districts enact their own local bullying policies. MPR News found an uneven patchwork that leaves students with different protections, depending on their school district. A handful of districts had no mention of the word 'bullying' in their body of policies.
The U.S. Department of Education has issued recommendations for what should be in a good law or policy, including mandates that schools collect data to assess potential problems. Several of those recommendations are absent from policies in Minnesota.
In response to our MPR's report, education commissioner Brenda Cassellius said she was prepared to pursue a change in the state's bullying law, but no such change happened this year.
Republican Sondra Erickson of Princeton, who chairs the House Education Reform committee, is among those lawmakers who opposes a state bullying policy.
"I don't think we should even have a bullying law because every time we create a law, we're going to have a regulatory authority determining behaviors," Erickson said. "And behaviors change from within."
Cassellius said she would support a law and has been soliciting input recently from other states on what might work for the state.
"There is an urgency to this issue in Minnesota, and we know from our own data that we collect at the state there is an alarming number of students being bullied," Cassellius said. "This is just not okay."
Cassellius refers to the Minnesota Student survey, which found 13 percent of students reported being bullied regularly, at least once a week or more. If the study sample results were applied to the student population throughout the state, 13 percent would represent more than 100 thousand Minnesota students who are regularly bullied.
Here's a timeline of states that have updated or enacted new bullying laws in 2011:
April 1, 2011: Arkansas updates its law
April 22, 2011: North Dakota passes its first bullying law
May 13, 2011: Colorado updates its bullying law
June 17, 2011: Texas updates its law
June 30, 2011: Rhode Island updates its law
July 11, 2011: Hawaii passes its first bullying law