How to prevent bullying — even how to define bullying — is the job laid out for a committee that held its first meeting Monday.
The Task Force on the Prevention of School Bullying, recently appointed by Gov. Mark Dayton, has a little over four months to investigate the scope of the bullying problem in Minnesota and come up with policies to stop it.
When it comes to preventing bullying in schools, current Minnesota law doesn't offer much guidance. At 37 words, the state's law is one of the shortest bullying laws in the nation, and essentially leaves it to individual school districts to determine their own polices.
Oddly enough that could be an advantage for the bullying task force, says Brenda Cassellius, the state's education commissioner and a member of the group.
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"Well there's not there much right now, so it's kind of a blank slate for us to work with," she said.
The work ahead of the task force represents a huge blank slate.
DFL Gov. Mark Dayton has asked the group to study the bullying problem in Minnesota schools. The task force is expected to take testimony from parents, teachers, bullying experts and students who have been targeted by bullies. Dayton even wants the task force to better define what bullying, harassment and intimidation mean.
"We're going to have to learn a lot and synthesize that information to come up with these recommendations by August," said state Sen. Scott Dibble, DFL-Minneapolis, one of the panel's 15 members. "It's going to be a pretty busy few months."
Dibble authored a 2009 bill that strengthened the state's bullying law. It was passed by lawmakers, but was vetoed by then-Gov. Tim Pawlenty. Dibble has authored similar bills during the last two legislative sessions, but they've failed to gain traction with the Republican-led legislature.
Dibble hopes the task force can come up with recommendations that could make their way into future legislation, or guidelines that could be implemented by the state department of education and school districts.
A large focus of the task force will be to study bullying laws in other states and to find effective policies in individual Minnesota school districts that could be emulated.
"Everybody knows there's a problem. The issue is what's working, where, and to what level of effectiveness is it working," said Walter Roberts, Jr., co-chairs the task force and is a professor of counseling at Minnesota State University at Mankato. "That's one of the things we have to be able to answer before we make any recommendations."
The task force plans public meetings throughout the state in coming months.
The deadline for the group's final report to the governor is Aug. 1.