Task force is no guarantee state's bullying law will change

Gov. Mark Dayton
Gov. Mark Dayton on Tuesday, Nov. 29, 2011, announced a task force to address Minnesota's anti-bullying laws. Dayton appears in this photo taken Nov. 15, 2011, at the State Capitol in St. Paul, Minn.
MPR Photo/Tim Pugmire

Gov. Mark Dayton says he'd like to update the state's bullying prevention law, but he's unlikely to push for changes before the 2013 session.

Dayton on Tuesday announced a task force to consider options for changing the law and other bullying prevention policies. However, that panel's recommendations won't be due until next summer, after next year's session is over.

The governor said Minnesotans would universally agree that students deserve to go to school without fear of being bullied or harassed — but that's not happening.

"Children in Minnesota being subjected to a form of harassement; a form of emotional torture — and people in authority are not responding and not preventing that and not acting upon it," Dayton said. "It's just something that's so un-Minnesotan that it's hard to fathom."

A report earlier this year found 13 percent of all Minnesota students in grades six, nine and 12 report being bullied at least once a week or more. If that percentage were true for the state's entire student population, it would mean more than 100,000 Minnesota youths are bullied regularly.

The 15-member task force is charged with studying what other states do, soliciting input from the public and experts on what Minnesota could do, and making recommendations to lawmakers and the governor. Task force members will be named at a later date; anyone can apply to be on the panel, subject to the the governor's approval.

Dayton said he doesn't want to prejudge the task force's future actions, but he does expect recommendations that will include some kind of change to the state's current anti-bullying law.

"The statute is only 37 words long, so it begs for improvement," he said.

CURRENT LAW

Minnesota's current bullying law only requires school districts to enact a bullying prevention policy. Unlike many other states, there are no further requirements about what those policies should include, other than they must address online or cyber-bullying.

If the task force recommends an updated law, it is unlikely it would pass next year because the panel's recommendations are due next August. The governor says that would give schools time to implement locally any of those recommendations before the next school year, and any legislative fixes would be ripe for consideration in 2013. That would also follow next fall's election, when the current make-up of the Legislature could change.

In a separate announcement last week, Attorney General Lori Swanson said she would push for anti-bullying legislation next year. But State Sen. Scott Dibble, DFL-Minneapolis, said the governor's timeline is fine with him, considering his own expectations.

"I certainly don't believe we can pass anything meaningful in the 2012 legislative session under Republican majorities," Dibble said. "They've already shown an unwillingness to deal with this issue."

GOP lawmakers argue, however, that it's not an unwillingness — it's a belief that the state doesn't need a new law.

"I will not be encouraging any bullying legislation beyond what we already have," said Rep. Sondra Erickson, R-Princeton, who chairs the House Education Reform Committee.

"I know there's some criticism that Minnesota has one of the weakest (anti-bullying laws), but we really don't because we leave it in the hands of the locals to decide their own policies," Erickson said. "And every school district is different and every area of Minnesota is different, and I don't think one size fits all."

DISTRICT POLICIES

Districts are free to have as strict a policy as they want, Erickson said, and if parents are upset with their policies, they should engage their local school board to make a change.

Erickson also questions the idea of requiring districts to report bullying incidents — another burdensome mandate, as she calls it, at a time of tight budgets.

Key education associations that represent school administrators, school boards and others also voiced concern over adding mandates in times of tight budgets.

But more than 40 organizations have created a coalition to support a bolstered anti-bullying law. That coalition includes the state's teachers' union Education Minnesota and the PACER Center, a disability rights group.

Sen. Gen Olsen, R-Minnetrista, who chairs her chamber's education committee, wasn't available for comment Tuesday — but has echoed sentiments similar to Erickson's in previous interviews with MPR News.

Supporters of changing the law counter the state already mandates standards for every school on topics like math and reading and should also have minimum standards on how to make schools safer.

"We shouldn't leave it up to local districts to decide how a child is treated in Ely versus Elko versus Elk River," said state Rep. Jim Davnie, DFL-Minneapolis, also a sponsor of bullying prevention legislation.

Your support matters.

You make MPR News possible. Individual donations are behind the clarity in coverage from our reporters across the state, stories that connect us, and conversations that provide perspectives. Help ensure MPR remains a resource that brings Minnesotans together.