By Dan Linehan
Free Press Staff Writer
MANKATO — For two decades, Minnesota State University Professor Walter Roberts has been researching school bullying and advocating for policies to help children feel safe in school.
“Twenty years ago, when I was out doing this, not many people gave too much attention to it,” he said.
But that changed after high-profile reports of school violence, especially of suicides in the 2011-2012 school year. The public began to pay attention, he said, and Gov. Mark Dayton in February of 2012 convened a 15-person task force, including Roberts, to tackle the problem.
The group toured the state, and saw schools that reduced bullying by bringing schools, parents and others together in a comprehensive effort, Roberts said. But that was not the case everywhere.
“I am still amazed today by some of the comments that I hear from adults about their beliefs that bullying is not a problem,” he said, “that it is something that we should let kids sort out amongst themselves.”
“Some of those attitudes have unfortunately remained in some schools,” he said.
These “rite-of-passage” arguments fail to take into account “some of the very dramatic negative implications that bullying has had for kids,” Roberts said.
The task force’s report was the model for legislation now passing through the Legislature, called the Safe and Supportive Schools Act. He said the bill is “extraordinarily true to the spirit of the recommendations.”
The backbone of the bill is a requirement that each district will have to create a bullying policy that includes the basic criteria set down in law. Those basics include definitions of bullying and a non-exclusive list of characteristics — such as religion, sex, age, disability and sexual orientation — that could be the basis of bullying.
The bill also has a training component for teachers and administrators, and a requirement to report incidences of bullying.
The bill has been criticized by Republicans as an overreach, though changes made this week have been aimed at easing some of those concerns.
Speaking about the earlier version of the bill, Rep. Sondra Erickson, R-Princeton, said teachers would be required to explain to their classes the definitions in the bill. And, the former teacher said, in rural schools like hers there are children who don’t have to worry about certain types of discrimination.
“It’s going to put into the minds of our children, I fear, some biases that they don’t have right now,” she said. “ ... In rural Minnesota, at least in my part, we don’t think in terms of that,” she said.
The few children of a non-white ethnic background were “highly respected and looked to as special because they brought something different” to the classroom, Erickson said.
She also objected to the bill being applied to private religious schools, though that requirement has been removed from the House version of the bill, its sponsor there, Rep. Jim Davnie, told MinnPost Friday.
A nonpartisan analysis of the bill showed it would cost $26 million annually, or $30.80 per pupil, to implement, according to the newsletter Politics In Minnesota.
Monica Meyer, executive director of the gay rights group OutFront Minnesota, said earlier this week that she believes there are some cost-savings areas of the bill to examine.
Though a school policy might seem like a toothless way to dissuade school-yard bullies, Meyer said policies like this one helps school staff see bullying that’s happening and that they have the support to put a stop to it.
Considering that bullied children often feel isolated, having a policy lets them know their right to feel secure in school is a priority.
And it helps other students “be upstanders, not bystanders,” she said.
The bill is waiting for a floor vote in the House and has a few more committees to clear in the Senate before a floor vote there, Meyer said.