Part 3: School boards sought weaker law

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Justin Aaberg
Justin Aaberg, of Andover, in an undated photo. Justin, 15, killed himself in July 2010; his mother Tammy says she has learned since her son's death about the bullying Justin endured for being gay.
Photo Courtesy of Tammy Aaberg

State Sen. Barb Goodwin, DFL-Columbia Heights, proposed Minnesota's first bullying law in 2002, when she was a state representative.

"When I brought it up to people and tried to get a hearing on it, they thought it was very unnecessary," said Goodwin, now a state senator. They thought that kids will be kids, they'll do these things - but nobody gets hurt in the long run."

Goodwin's proposal included a statewide definition of bullying and a list of requirements for all district policies to include. But her proposal and others didn't pass, even as other states adopted bullying laws.

Then on March 21, 2005, 16-year old Jeffrey Weise killed nine people, including seven at Red Lake High School, in a shooting rampage before killing himself. In the aftermath, authorities looked into reports that Weise had endured bullying and taunts from other students because of his "goth" look and black clothes.

State legislators passed Minnesota's first bullying law four months later. But it wasn't anything like the proposals Goodwin and others had introduced. Instead, it was essentially the law that still exists today — a few sentences, requiring districts to have a policy on file.

Kirk Schneidawind, the Minnesota School Boards' Association lobbyist, said his group pushed for a less intrusive law so districts could retain local control to address bullying as they saw fit.

"I'd be willing to say I'm pretty sure I've never met a teacher who's OK with one kid picking on another kid because we love them all."

"We made the pitch that we were willing to do this; we understand the importance of this," he said. "Rather than have detailed requirements within the state statute that we felt we could do a good job with that. And we feel we have done a good and thorough job with our policy."

In the end, the model policy that school boards' association drew up largely mirrored what had been in Goodwin's bill.

Goodwin, however, argues that the policy is not enough. She said its provisions should be in state law to guarantee uniformity.

State Sen. Scott Dibble, DFL-Minneapolis, agrees. A bullying bill he introduced recently failed in the Senate, and Dibble has been at odds with the school boards association over whether the state should have more oversight on bullying prevention efforts.

He calls the MSBA model policy "anemic" and "worthless" because the association does not encourage school districts to do anything more than adopt the policy.

"They're not putting any shoe leather into this effort," Dibble said.

The resistance at the state Capitol rests in the long-held desire to ensure local control of Minnesota schools.

State Sen. Pam Wolf, R-Spring Lake Park, who taught for 25 years, said she long thought her school district had well informed her on bullying and how to address it.

"I think it's being handled at the local level," Wolf said. "And I'd be willing to say I'm pretty sure I've never met a teacher who's OK with one kid picking on another kid because we love them all."

One key shortfall to local control is a lack of a statewide data tracking mechanism, according to critics.

Minnesota does require schools to report disciplinary incidents, among them fighting, vandalism, and weapons at school.

Sen. Al Franken
Screen grab of Sen. Al Franken speaking on the Senate floor on March 10, 2011, while re-introducing legislation that would boost federal civil rights protections for students based on sexual orientation. Behind him is a photo of Justin Aaberg, an Andover teen who committed suicide in 2010 and who was bullied because he was gay.
C-SPAN image

Bullying and cyber-bullying are included, but state officials only track incidents that lead to at least a day's suspension. That threshold makes the disciplinary reports inadequate for measuring bullying because most bullying is handled with less-severe discipline.

Both researchers and the federal government say measurable data are crucial to knowing the extent of bullying in your school or state.

Massachusetts and New Jersey are among the recent states to require detailed tracking of bullying incidents. New Jersey will now require schools to post on their website home pages the number of bullying incidents they've had.

One Minnesota district that does track data on bullying is Forest Lake, which uses a bullying prevention strategy called Olweus, named for Dan Olweus, a pioneer of bullying research. One requirement is to survey students and track data.

Olweus is a highly regarded program that has reported declines in bullying in schools where it is used. It conducts student surveys and collects data, allowing officials to track bullying rates.

Once schools learned how to use the data, it became an effective tool, said Carolyn Latady, the district's family support advocate.

"We really learned the point of the survey is for the school to use it, to address what's happening in their buildings," she said. "Overall, we've seen decreases in bullying — certainly kids bullying other and also being bullied."

One school in the Forest Lake district, Scandia Elementary, had 17 behavior referrals last year, down from 39 a few years ago.

The bullying bill Dibble sponsored this year would have required data collection. It also would have required districts to post their policies online and require the state to check to make sure districts have policies.

But Dibble's bill doesn't include other components that were on that checklist from the U.S. Education Department. It lacks definitions for bullying and cyber-bullying and also does not clarify when schools have to respond to off-campus bullying, cyber or otherwise.

Opponents of a stronger law say there's no proof that stronger state laws lead to a decrease in bullying cases. But no one has studied that.

Cassellius, the state's education commissioner, said that's no reason not to update the law.

"This is just simply protecting our children," she said. "Bullying is not a partisan issue; every single parent in the community wants their child to be safe. To me, this should have been done a while ago."

Lawmakers in other states have already acted.

In Massachusetts, Phoebe Prince, 15, hanged herself with a scarf after being repeatedly bullied by a group of students. Authorities initially charged the students, including the captain of the football team, with what a variety of crimes, including criminal harassment, stalking and felony civil rights violations, the Associated Press reported. After the students admitted to bullying they received probation and community service. Prosecutors dropped a statutory rape charge against one student.

Vigil for Tyler Clementi
This Oct. 3, 2010 file photo shows people participating in a candlelight vigil for Rutgers University freshman Tyler Clementi at Brower Commons on the Rutgers campus in New Brunswick, N.J. Clementi jumped to his death off the George Washington Bridge after two classmates surreptitiously recorded him having sex with a man in his dorm room and broadcast it over the Internet. Support and other resources for gay young people are out there, sometimes only a click or a phone call away, but advocates said the recent suicide of Rutgers University freshman Tyler Clementi and other teens who were believed to have been victims of anti-gay bullying point to the need for even more widespread help.
AP Photo/Reena Rose Sibayan, FILE

In New Jersey, college student Tyler Clementi killed himself after discovering a secretly-made video of him with another man. Authorities accused his roommate and a female student with using a webcam to spy on his dorm-room encounter with another man, before the roommate told others about it on Twitter.

The roommate, Dharun Ravi, was indicted last month on 15 charges, including a bias intimidation count that accuses him of acting because Clementi was gay, the Associated Press reported. A conviction on that charge could send Ravi to prison for 10 years. The other student, Molly Wei, entered a pretrial intervention program. Authorities agreed to drop two invasion of privacy charges against her if she complies with conditions, including continuing to cooperate with prosecutors in the case against Ravi.

Lawmakers beefed up anti-bullying laws in both states. The bills were signed into law by Democratic Gov. Deval Patrick in Massachusetts and Republican Gov. Chris Christie in New Jersey.

David Nash, a lobbyist for New Jersey school principals, said the law there is too new to measure any results. Nash said he likes the sections regarding data collection and posting online, but he worries the law is too prescriptive, laying out several detailed steps schools must take during the investigation of bullying.

However, Nash said, "It's better to have a strong law that's imperfect, than to have no standards."

Justin Aaberg
This 2009 picture provided by his family shows Justin Aaberg at his home in Andover, Minn. Aaberg, 15, hanged himself in his room in July 2010. His friends told his mother he'd been a frequent target of bullies mocking his sexual orientation.
AP Photo/Family Photo

In Minnesota, Justin Aaberg, 15, hanged himself in his bedroom in Andover in July 2010. He had just finished the ninth grade at Andover High School. Since then, his mother Tammy Aaberg has been advocating for changes in local district policies, state laws and federal laws. After her son's death, Aaberg learned from Justin's friends that he had been bullied for being gay.

"His last message on his Facebook that we found was 'if you really knew me, none of you would like me.' " Aaberg said. "So he probably hated himself, and thought that no one would like him even though he had tons of friends."

Aaberg has a new ally in her efforts — Andrew Behnke, a cousin of Paige Moravetz, one of the girls who committed suicide in western Minnesota last month. Behnke, 23, of LaCrosse, Wis., also wants to work to change policies, especially on cyber-bullying.

"Bullying policies are so inadequate now and out of date," he said. "These kids are getting attacked form all angles when it comes to bullying, and you can't just assume when the school day ends, all that trouble is closed for the day."

The new bullying laws in Massachusetts and New Jersey were signed about four months after the high-profile suicides that happened in each state.

Monday, May 9, 2011, marked 10 months since Justin Aaberg's death in Minnesota. Today marks one month since Haylee Fentress and Paige Moravetz died in western Minnesota.

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