Education Commissioner Brenda Cassellius said Wednesday that Minnesota's bullying law needs a definition of bullying and more accountability.
In an interview with MPR News, Cassellius elaborated on a statement she issued Tuesday in response to an MPR News investigation into bullying policies. That investigation found Minnesota's weak state law is silent in many areas where researchers say a clear state voice is needed.
Cassellius said she would start by seeking a definition of bullying in the law, "and more strength, in terms of reporting; being able to address how we should intervene in schools; and then how we should hold ourselves accountable; and how we report out to parents."
Cassellius also told superintendents in a conference call Wednesday that she supports the work they're doing on bullying, but wants them to give her input on improvements.
"It's not that we don't know what to do; it's that we have to do it. And have the political and personal courage to stand up for our children so we have safe and welcoming environments for them," she said.
MPR's investigation found bullying is largely left to districts to figure out in Minnesota, which creates a patchwork of policies from district to district. More than two dozen don't use the word "bullying" in their policies.
In other cases, some districts fold bullying into their policies on harassement, but researchers and legal experts say "bullying" and "harassment" should not be used interchangably because they mean different things and carry a separate set of legal consequences. Minnesota's law does not clarify the difference, something Cassellius says should happen in a way that's also communicated to parents and students.
MPR News also found nearly a third of districts don't address online, or cyberbullying in their bullying policies, as required by law.
Cassellius said that might be the result of districts noting cyberbullying in other policies, like those on computer usage or student discipline, but she said districts should be clear about where the cyberbullying policy is. "Have it stand out," she added.
For Cassellius, bullying took on a personal tone last year when her third grade son was bullied at school, an episode she said filled her family with anxiety. Her son even begged to be home-schooled, she said.
Because of her role as a school district administrator, Cassellius said she usually defers to her husband in terms of addressing school officials when there's a problem. In this case, though, she said she went to the principal, who she said was "terrific" in handling the problem.
"I think students don't understand the full impact of words. My grandmother always taught me that when you pick up mud to throw on someone, you get dirty first. I'm not sure we're teaching our children those lessons."
BRENDA CASSELLIUS' FULL STATEMENT ON BULLYING
"This is an important conversation. The safety and well-being of our students must always be our highest priority. Every school should provide a supportive and welcoming environment that supports student success and learning.
I will continue to engage in conversations with students, teachers, principals, superintendents and parents to help facilitate a change in the way we think about bullying and the risks it poses to children. I am also prepared to pursue a change in Minnesota's anti-bullying law that will substantially strengthen the existing language.
Further, I will continue to oppose funding cuts to the Department of Education that undermine our ability to provide technical support and assistance to schools that are working to prevent bullying. Every adult who cares about s tudent success should be working together to make sure every child feels safe, supported and ready to learn when they walk through the school door."