Long before gay rights activists in Minnesota launched a successful campaign to legalize same-sex marriage, they were aiming for another high-profile goal: a state law protecting children from school bullies.
Backers of a bill dubbed the "Safe and Supportive Schools Act" think 2014 is finally their year.
OutFront Minnesota, one of the main political forces behind last year's gay marriage bill, will rally supporters Monday at the Capitol as it aims to push the bill through the state Senate after years of setbacks, including a 2009 veto by former Republican Gov. Tim Pawlenty. Supporters see a window of opportunity, with full Democratic control at the Capitol guaranteed only through the end of this year.
"I don't think we're going to see one" Republican vote in the Senate, said Sen. Scott Dibble, DFL-Minneapolis, lead Senate sponsor of the gay marriage bill and the bullying bill. The House passed the bill last May on a straight party-line vote.
The bill, which would require all Minnesota school districts to develop and enforce a plan to reduce bullying, exposes some of the same cultural divides as the gay marriage debate. Social conservatives worry some students could get labeled bullies for expressing religious views. But the legislation is also facing from interest groups representing school superintendents, school board members and rural school districts, who see the state delving deep into school policies.
"We have always supported safe environments for our children," said Gary Amoroso, a former Lakeville superintendent who now leads the Minnesota Association of School Administrators. "If a child doesn't feel safe, they're not going to be as productive. So that's not even a question. The question revolves around what is the best way to go about ensuring that safety."
The bill would require all Minnesota public schools to adopt written policies on bullying prevention and designate a staff member to implement the policy. School employees and volunteers would be trained to spot bullying and be required to "make a reasonable effort to address and resolve the prohibited conduct."
The bill also would create a "school climate center" at the Department of Education to guide schools in creating policies and collect yearly data on bullying. Lawmakers approved $1 million last year to create the climate center, which would be supervised by a 24-member council of officials from various state agencies.
"Are we just going to create a lot of bureaucracy here, that's actually going to make it difficult to do the work of reducing incidents of bullying?" asked Grace Keliher, lobbyist for the Minnesota School Boards Association.
She said school board members are concerned about a number of the bill's provisions, including what some feel is an overly broad definition of bullying; the lack of an appeals process for students deemed bullies; and training requirements that could be costly if applied to many thousands of school volunteers around the state.
The cost to implement the legislation is estimated at about $20 million a year. The bill's supporters say schools should have no problem finding that money with about $485 million in increased school funding that lawmakers approved last year.
"If a student is facing significant bullying, they're not living up to what the school experience should be about. It just cuts everything short," said Monica Meyer, executive director of OutFront Minnesota. "A lot of students skip school, they get sick more often, they're nervous every day, scared."
Critics have been careful to couch concerns within broader support for the bill's aims.
"I think we all get a little choked up on this issue," Keliher said. "Kids are impacted, and it's impossible not to be moved by their stories. But we want to be sure it's not just talk."
Emotional appeals from former victims of bullying have helped sell the bill.
"I testified last year in front of a few committees, I've talked to senators about it. I've done bullying prevention seminars across the Midwest, and I've seen an overwhelming amount of students crying out for help," said Alec Fischer, a 20-year-old University of Minnesota student who recently made a documentary film about school bullying.
Fischer, who grew up in Edina, said students who believed he was gay bullied him during middle school. Excluded from social activities, he grew suicidal but concealed it from his parents for several years, he said.
The proposal law is "all about helping students -- both bullies and the bullied -- adapt in those situation, and to come to a point where everyone is more focused on understanding each other," Fischer said. "It's got to be a culture change, and that doesn't happen overnight."
Sen. Branden Peterson, of Andover, was the only Senate Republican to vote last year to pass gay marriage. But he won't cross party lines on the bullying bill.
"At a certain point, we've got to recognize as a society that the state cannot mandate whether or not an 8-year-old calls another 8-year-old fat," Petersen said. "It's almost, I don't want to say arrogant, but it kind of is to think the state has that kind of power."