Bullying task force drafts recommendations, nears end of work

Julie Hertzog, Walter Roberts Jr.
Julie Hertzog and Walter Roberts Jr. are co-chairs of Gov. Mark Dayton's Task Force on the Prevention of Bullying. The task force is preparing its final report and will pass its recommendations to the governor Aug. 1.
MPR photo/Tim Post

A state task force examining the problem of bullying in Minnesota will recommend the state strengthen its bullying law, and require schools to improve tracking and reporting bullying incidents.

The Task Force on the Prevention of Bullying has nearly finished its final draft of recommendations which are due on Gov. Mark Dayton's desk next week.

The recommendations already worry some school officials.

The first item in the task force's draft report is a definition of bullying, something that currently doesn't exist in Minnesota law.

"I think it's probably the most important thing," said Vangie Castro, one of the task force members who penned the new definition. "A lot of the misunderstanding around what bullying is — especially for parents, administrators, staff — is that they don't know exactly what bullying is."

The definition itself takes up nearly an entire page of the draft document, and explains what bullying is in great detail. Essentially, it is anything that makes a student feel unsafe or hurts them physically or emotionally. That could be through words, actions, or electronically, like on Facebook or through text messaging.

The draft document also recommends the state pass a strong anti-bullying law. At 37 words long, Minnesota's current law is considered one of the weakest in the nation. It also does not give school districts guidance on how to handle bullying.

Governor's Task Force
Members of the Governor's Task Force on the Prevention of Bullying reviewed the latest version of their report on Thursday, July 26, 2012. The task force is set to recommend the state strengthen its bullying law and require schools to report all cases of suspected bullying to the state.
MPR photo/Tim Post

Finding a way to replace that law is at the core of their work, said State Sen. Scott Dibble, DFL-Minneapolis, who serves on the task force.

"It was very important to the task force members that that be the first recommendation, to emphasize the priority that we need to change the law and strengthen it."

The draft document does not lay out specific language for a new state law. That has frustrated some task force members.

But the draft does emphasize a comprehensive state law should prohibit bullying, mandate investigation and reporting of incidents, and require school districts to train all employees on how to spot and prevent bullying. In the end it leaves it up to lawmakers just how to word such a law.

Despite the lack of details, some school officials watching the task force's work already are expressing concern about what they will be required to do.

For instance, the task force recommends all suspected incidents of bullying be investigated and reported to the state.

That leaves Kelly Smith, superintendent of the Belle Plaine School District and a non-voting member of the task force, with a question.

"Is a report of suspected bullying actually something that should be reported if it's deemed that it was not bullying after an investigation has happened," he asked.

Smith's concern is that every incident that is reported as bullying will require a full investigation and draw time and resources from the school, no matter the severity.

"We recognize this is a serious issue. But we also have to look at the reality of if we have the manpower to deal with all of the reporting mechanisms that have been talked about at one point or another," he said.

The task force's draft document does address the possibility that being tough on bullying will cost schools more than they have to spend. It charges the legislature with finding and providing permanent and ongoing funding for any anti-bullying efforts.

The Governor's Task Force on the Prevention of Bullying is expected to adjust its recommendations, and then approve them at its final meeting on Monday.

Dayton will ultimately decide how and if to use the report to draft new legislation or new policies to prevent bullying in Minnesota schools.

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