Anti-bullying measure wins state Senate panel's approval

Debating the anti-bullying bill
The Minnesota Senate Committee on Education debated several amendments to a bill that would strengthen the state's anti-bullying bill Tuesday night, March 11, 2014. After four hours of debate that stretched into an evening session, the committee passed the bill on to the Senate Finance Committee.
Tim Post/MPR News

A bill to strengthen Minnesota's anti-bullying law cleared a Senate education committee at the State Capitol Tuesday.

The bill's chief author made changes he hopes make it more likely to become law this year. But opponents say the changes do not ease many of their concerns.

The bill aims to replace Minnesota's current anti-bullying law, which at 37 words is considered one of the weakest in the nation.

The new measure would require school districts to train staff on how to spot and prevent bullying. And it would mandate better reporting and follow up of bullying incidents.

The bill's chief author, state Sen. Scott Dibble, DFL-Minneapolis, proposed an amendment to ease some of its implementation issues, as a response to school officials who feared the bill was too burdensome and costly. The bill now more narrowly defines bullying, essentially, as any "intimidating, threatening or abusive conduct" but drops any reference to "harassing" behavior.

The latest version of the bill also eases some of the training requirements for districts and doesn't require schools to report detailed data on bullying incidents.

Organizations that represent the state's school administrators told legislators they were happy to see the new language, although some stopped short of offering 100 percent support.

State Sen. Roger Chamberlain, R-Lino Lakes, opposes Dibble's bill and said the changes did little to allay his concerns.

"These changes are mostly clerical, administrative, technical things, with a few "mays" and "shalls" changed to address the needs of our administrators," he said.

An amendment from Republican Sen. Carla Nelson proposed deleting Dibble's bill altogether, and replacing it with a measure that steered clear of language that mentions gay and lesbian students, based on North Dakota's anti-bullying law.

"We're not entering that unchartered territory," she said. "This is an anti-bullying policy that's been adopted, it's been implemented and it's been rated."

The committee turned down that amendment and ultimately voted along party lines to pass the anti-bullying bill out of committee.

Dibble saw that as a sign his bill has a good chance of becoming law this session.

"I think we were already in good shape but I think it helps us a little more," he said.

The next stop for the Safe and Supportive Schools bill is the Senate Finance Committee and then possibly to the Senate floor for a vote.

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