The Minnesota Senate has passed an anti-bullying bill on a 36-to-31 vote after nearly six hours of debate.
After failing to win enough support for passage of his anti-bullying bill last year, DFL Sen. Scott Dibble of Minneapolis tweaked the legislation before bringing it back this year.
He narrowed the bill's definition of bullying and dropped some requirements around gathering data on bullying incidents.
During the debate, Dibble told senators his bill would still put teeth in the state's anti-bullying efforts by requiring schools to better train teachers and staff on how to handle bullying and require districts to investigate and track cases of bullying.
But Dibble said the effort would leave some of the details up to individual districts.
"It provides for that balance of local initiative and control, it provides for some elements of policies and practices so things are well communicated, they're recognized when they're seen," he said. "There's some training and some resources so people have tools to respond in an appropriate fashion."
But opponents didn't see much flexibility for school districts. Their concerns revolved around anti-bullying training for school staff and the expense of tracking cases of bullying across the state.
Last year a report from the state's Management and Budget office estimated that cost at almost $20 million a year. There's no money in the legislation to cover those expenses.
Speaking against the bill, Republican Sen. Roger Chamberlain of Lino Lakes said it would take local control away from districts.
"In this bill it is implicit that you don't trust parents, educators or schools," Chamberlain said. "Why else (would supporters) have such a far reaching, bureaucratic bill?"
Republican senators unsuccessfully proposed substituting their own version, a move that failed twice before when the bill was working its way through Senate committees.
Republican Sen. Carla Nelson of Rochester said the GOP's anti-bullying law was simpler, less expensive and proven to work.
"It's an alternative that has been tested in North Dakota. It's rated as one of the top three inclusive anti-bullying bills in the nation. It has been implemented successfully and members; it is non-controversial," Nelson said.
Sen. Charles Wiger, DFL-Maplewood, snapped back at Republican concerns over the cost of the bill, saying schools are already doing much of what it requires.
And Wiger reminded them that the purpose of the bill was to put a fair and uniform approach to bullying prevention across the state.
"This has some basic expectations about a safe and supportive school environment. And that trumps any concerns you have about cost. Thousands of kids go to school in Minnesota, in fear," Wiger said.
"An amazing feeling"
Alexa Groenke from Bloomington was on hand to watch the debate. Groenke, who says she's been bullied in school because she's gay, is confident the measure will soon become law.
"Finally this bill is going to happen and it's going to make a real difference in peoples' lives. It's just an amazing feeling."
The bill now heads to the state House.
Because it's slightly different than what the House approved last year, representatives can either vote on the Senate bill, or pass their own version and reconcile the two bills in a conference committee.
House Speaker Paul Thissen, DFL-Minneapolis, told reporters he expects the Senate bill will receive support in his chamber.
Gov. Mark Dayton released a statement saying he supports the bill's stronger measures to prevent bullying. The governor's spokesperson says Dayton will sign the bill if it makes it to his desk.
Foes vow to keep fighting
Opponents of the bill say they'll keep pushing back against the measure.
Autumn Leva, director of legislative affairs and communications for the Minnesota Family Council, said the group is concerned about the bill's cost and that it steps on a parents' rights to be informed if their child is bullied or is accused of being a bully. The measure says it's "presumed" parents will be contacted in those cases, but doesn't specifically require that they're contacted.
Leva also says the Minnesota Family Council would prefer language in the bill about who is protected from bullying is left at "all students."
Editors note: An earlier version of this story incorrectly implied that Autumn Leva and the Minnesota Family Council had particular worries about language in the bill specific to gay and lesbian students.