Bullying task force split on goals

Jacob Reitan
Jacob Reitan is a member of a state task force that is looking into how to prevent school bullying. Reitan says the group's report should offer Gov. Mark Dayton and lawmakers specific suggestions on how to strengthen Minnesota's bullying law, which is considered one of the weakest in the nation.
MPR photo/Tim Post

With less than a month left before it's supposed to offer up recommendations, a task force to look into the problem of bullying is split over its goals.

The Governor's Task Force on the Prevention of Bullying is supposed to have recommendations to beef up the state's bullying policy on the governor's desk by Aug.1. But at the task force's meeting Monday, members were divided on whether to aim for specific legislation or broader guidelines on how best to prevent bullying.

Since March, the group established by Gov. Mark Dayton has taken testimony from hundreds of students and more than a dozen experts on the problem of bullying in Minnesota schools.

The group has researched bullying laws in other states, and examined language that Minnesota might borrow to beef up its own statute, which at 37 words is one of the shortest in the nation.

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But as the task force works on a rough draft of its recommendations, co-chair Walter Roberts, Jr. can see the group's deadline looming just three weeks away.

Task Force on the Prevention of Bullying
A meeting of Gov. Mark Dayton's Task Force on the Prevention of Bullying Monday, July 9, 2012, at the state Department of Education's headquarters in Roseville, Minn.
MPR photo/Tim Post

"Now we're down to the crunch time where we are having to determine exactly what it is that we believe is the best set of recommendations to put forth to the governor," Roberts said.

The rough draft gives an idea of what the task force is considering sending to the governor. It calls for districts to designate specific people within schools to investigate bullying cases. Each school would be required to file an annual report with the state on incidents of bullying. It also requires schools to train teachers and educate students on bullying.

So far, the draft recommendations do not include specific ways to change the state's bullying law, but rather asks the state departments of Education and Human Services to come up with a base policy for all Minnesota's schools.

"The policy recommendations as they are set out now seem very hands off. They seem like an abdication of our responsibility," said task force member Jacob Reitan. He thinks the report's first priority should be to recommend language for a new anti-bullying law in Minnesota.

"We can recommend a very strong law, and I think we can do just that," Reitan said.

Without that, the task force isn't doing its job, he said.

But Minnesota's Education Commissioner Brenda Cassellius, also a member of the task force, said there just is not time to draft a new law. That's better left up to the governor and lawmakers, she said.

"They seem like an abdication of our responsibility."

"It's not possible to draft legislation," Cassellius said. "But having a really bold reform proposal that really looks at a framework that directs and gives good advice based on research and our statewide sessions we've had, I think, would be a best way to go."

Despite the time running short, lawmakers might appreciate more guidance on just exactly how to change Minnesota's bullying law, said one task force member — and a lawmaker himself — Rep. Tim Kelly, R-Red Wing.

"I would suggest they come up with a guideline for legislation and maybe even go a step further and say, 'here's what we believe the legislation should say,'" Kelly said. "Then as policy makers and legislators it's up to us to debate the issue."

Some on the task force say in the end, they may not have specific suggestions for changing Minnesota's bullying law but instead direct to other states' laws that lawmakers could use for inspiration.

Over the next three weeks, the state's bullying task force will meet again two or three times, yet to be decided. The task force will also take more public testimony from students in Minneapolis on Wednesday night.