Minnesota lawmakers are considering beefing up the state's anti-bullying law, and for the most part, school administrators applaud the effort.
But as with so many pieces of legislation, there's concern over the cost. The proposed bill would require schools to implement bullying prevention programs and better document incidents of harassment.
The measure would replace Minnesota's current anti-bullying law, which at 37 words, is considered one of the weakest in the nation.
DFL Sen. Scott Dibble's version of the Safe and Supportive Minnesota Schools Act essentially scraps the state's current law, and replaces it with a much more detailed — and many would say stronger — measure.
Dibble, from Minneapolis, presented his bill at a recent Senate Education Committee hearing.
"Madam chair and members, we've waited too long to address bullying that occurs in our schools and across our state," Dibble said.
The state's current anti-bullying law simply mandates schools have a bullying policy in place, but doesn't offer advice on what should be in that policy,
In a 2011 investigation, MPR News found the state's weak bullying law resulted in inconsistent policies at schools across the state. Many students, parents, educators and experts say that's put Minnesota kids at greater risk of being targeted by bullies.
The proposed new law would mandate all public, charter and private schools put a stronger policy in place. It would also require schools to create anti-bullying programs, train all employees on how to handle bullying and better document and investigate any incidents of bullying.
Dibble said revamping the state's bullying law is the best way to protect students.
"Every kid can come to school and know that they have a place at that school, that they're valued for who they are, that they can be free from the distraction that bullying represents," Dibble said.
FUNDING PICTURE UNCLEAR
No one is sure how much it would cost schools to implement the changes in the proposed law. And at this point neither the House nor Senate version of the bill includes any funding.
That has Kelly Smith, the superintendent of the Belle Plaine School District, a bit worried.
"We struggle to find dollars to fill the needs that we have within the district and this may be one more thing that we have to fit in that budget," he said.
Smith isn't opposed to the bill, and thinks there needs to be improvements to bullying policies across the state. But he's concerned he'll need to hire additional personnel to handle an increase in paperwork tied to bullying programs and investigations.
And he's wondering where he'll find room in his budget to pay for extra training days for teachers and staff.
When New Jersey put a new bullying law in place two years ago, one very similar to Minnesota's proposed law, it didn't include funding.
New Jersey schools cried "unfunded mandate", a state panel agreed, and lawmakers ended up offering schools $1 million to train staff on how to handle bullying.
Sen. Dibble said his bill does call for the development of a grant program at the state Department of Education.
"This would allow schools to apply to the commissioner of education for grants for the programs that they might want to bring into their schools to address bullying," Dibble said.
Dibble is hopeful the bullying bill will get funding as it moves through the legislative process.
Superintendent Smith said if funding is allocated for bullying programs, he wants it to go straight to schools rather than through a grant program.
"We don't have a grant writer," Smith said. "So who's that work going to go to? The district that has the best grant writer is going to get that money and better serve their students."
In his budget proposal this session, Gov. Mark Dayton is asking lawmakers for $1 million to fund a new school climate center. The governor said it would offer advice and training to schools on anti-bullying efforts.