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Anti-bullying bill will return next year, supporters say

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Sen. Scott Dibble
Sen. Scott Dibble, DFL-Minneapolis, is shown in a recent photo. With the "Safe Schools for All" bill facing a possible filibuster which would have tied up the Legislature in the last remaining hours of the session, May 20, 2013, Dibble pulled the bill from consideration.
MPR Photo/Tom Scheck

When it comes down to it, supporters of the anti-bullying legislation just ran out of time. 

The measure had already passed the House. And it had Gov. Mark Dayton's support - the bill was borne out of a task force he appointed to study how to bolster Minnesota's anti-bullying law.

But early Monday morning, Sen. Scott Dibble, DFL-Minneapolis, who authored the Senate version of the "Safe Schools for All" bill, said Republican lawmakers in the Minnesota Senate who opposed the bill were prepared to filibuster for 10 hours.

The filibuster would have tied up the Legislature in the last remaining hours of the session, so Dibble pulled the bill from consideration.

Eight hours later, Dibble addressed a crowd of the bill's supporters at the Capitol. 

"So this is democracy. It's not pretty, it's hard work, it demands a lot of us," Dibble said. "Every setback, every discouragement, in this movement I've only seen people grow stronger and more determined and more fierce." 

Dibble told the crowd that since he withdrew the measure, it's not dead, it's merely on hold until next year.  

"Every setback, every discouragement in this movement -- I've only seen people grow stronger and more determined and more fierce."

The bill would have scrapped Minnesota's current anti-bullying law, which at 37 words is considered by some to be one of the weakest in nation and requires districts only to have an anti-bullying policy, but does not guide the policy or define bullying.

The new law would have offered an extensive definition of bullying. It also would have required school districts to track and investigate cases of bullying. And it carried a mandate that schools train all employees on how to spot and prevent bullying.

Both sides of the debate say they'll spend the next nine months making their case in preparation for next year.

Kyrsten Schuette, 21, who testified in favor of the bill earlier this year, was disappointed that it did not pass.  The reporting measures might have helped her a few years back when she was bullied for being gay, she said.

"I think it would have made it so that they would have been able to report (bullying) better, and they would have been able to record it and it wouldn't have been so persistent," Schuette said of the measures included in the bill. " They would have been able to nip it in the bud  before it got to such a severe and drastic point that it did for me, where I felt so helpless and alone that I ended up leaving high school and attempting to commit suicide."

Schuette was a student in the Anoka-Hennepin School District. She was part of a lawsuit against the district on behalf of a half-dozen students who said they were bullied because they were gay or perceived to be gay. The students said the district's anti-bullying policy did not protect them.

  In the Legislature, the anti-bullying bill faced opposition from Republican lawmakers who said it was overreaching. Senate Assistant Minority Leader Roger Chamberlain, R-Lino Lakes, said the legislation offered a "one-size-fits-all" approach to bullying policy.

"Trying to control and regulate every aspect of the teacher's life, and the school's life and the principal's -- how they run their schools. To me it's just unworkable," Chamberlain said.

Chamberlain said he would favor encouraging districts to put effective anti-bullying policies in place, but leave the final decision up to school leaders.

A 2011 investigation by MPR News found a patchwork of district bullying policies in the state. Some were robust, but others did not mention "bullying" at all. And many policies did not address cyber-bullying as recommended by federal education officials and anti-bullying advocates.

Since then, some of those schools, but not all, have updated their anti-bullying rules with a boilerplate policy written by the Minnesota School Boards Association. The MSBA itself had concerns with the statewide anti-bullying policy, calling it an unfunded mandate.

"When you have a state requirement that lays out a number of expectations for districts and their staff, there will be additional costs that come along with this piece," said Kirk Schneidawind, MSBA deputy executive director.

The training and reporting mandates in the bill were expected to cost Minnesota's school districts anywhere between $5 million and $40 million annually.