A measure to strengthen the state's anti-bullying law that passed the Minnesota House Monday night requires public school districts to institute tougher policies and report cases of bullying to the state.
But some legislators say the measure overreaches and is too expensive to implement.
Minnesota's current law requires schools have an anti-bullying policy in place, but does not offer guidance on the policy itself.
On the House floor, Jim Davnie, DFL-Minneapolis, told lawmakers the anti-bullying Safe and Supportive Schools bill provides what the current law does not: an explanation of what bullying is.
"It establishes clear definitions of bullying, cyber-bullying, harassment and intimidation," Davnie said, "and then sets a high bar for school involvement."
That means bullying can be any word or action, in person or online, that disrupts a student's education, Davnie said.
The bill specifically mentions bullying based on a student's sexual identity, race, social status or disability. It also mandates that schools train all of their employees on how to spot and prevent bullying.
“Members, this is an overreach. This is going too far. We have a succinct law in place right now that allows for local control,”Rep. Sondra Erickson, R-Princeton
The bill passed the House 72 to 57, with Democrats voting in favor and Republicans voting against it.
During four hours of debate, Republican lawmakers offered several amendments, some which were intended to derail the bill. The amendments failed after votes that fell along party lines.
Rep. Sondra Erickson, R-Princeton, said the bill would undercut school districts' authority to develop their own bullying polices.
"Members, this is an overreach. This is going too far. We have a succinct law in place right now that allows for local control," Erickson said. "We have effective teachers, effective administrators who are following the law."
What Erickson calls a succinct law, others consider a weak law. They say the 37-word anti-bullying law is vague and needs an update.
Rep. Kelby Woodard, R-Belle Plaine, expressed the potential cost of new bullying regulations as another concern of Republicans during the debate.
He said it will be expensive to train school employees to prevent, track and report cases of bullying. He thinks individual school districts should determine how they handle bullying.
"Please think twice before you vote for another unfunded mandate on our schools," Woodard said, "for something they're already doing, that they don't need St. Paul's help with."
Supporters say the way to pay for the cost of the bill is already spelled out in an education bill that has been approved in the House. That provision would allow districts to tap into local property taxes to pay for the law's implementation.
The Minnesota Management and Budget office estimates the new anti-bullying bill will cost the state's school districts a total of $20 million annually. The bill's supporters believe it will actually be less than $5 million.
Republicans and Democrats acknowledged each others' good intentions to stop bullying in schools. But more is needed, Davnie said.
"Good intentions, rhetoric against bullying, everybody lamenting it isn't enough," Davnie said.
The nearly identical Senate version of the bill is lagging, with two more committee stops required in coming days before a vote on the Senate floor.