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Saying that "Minnesota can lead by example," Attorney General Lori Swanson proposed major changes Wednesday in how school districts respond to allegations of bullying.
The Swanson-backed legislation would require all districts to act within 24 hours of receiving a report of bullying. Districts also would have to create procedures for documenting and investigating cases, and for disciplining students who engage in bullying or make a false report.
Staff members who do not respond to a report of bullying also would be subject to discipline under the legislation, which will be introduced by Rep. Debra Hilstrom, DFL-Brooklyn Center.
Joined at a State Capitol news conference by Hilstrom, Bloomington police Sgt. Marty Earley and a phalanx of elementary and middle school children, Swanson referred to an evaluation of anti-bullying laws by the watchdog group BullyPolice USA that gave Minnesota and its 37-word law a C-minus -- the lowest grade among the 47 states with anti-bullying laws.
"Minnesota can be an A-plus state," Swanson said. "We don't have to be a C-minus state."
Gov. Mark Dayton plans to announce a separate anti-bullying initiative next week, joined by key legislators.
"Obviously, it's a huge problem, and there are many different ways to go at it, but they're independent [efforts]," said Dayton's spokeswoman Katharine Tinucci.
Swanson cited statistics indicating that bullied children are prone to depression and absenteeism, and that those who engage in bullying are subject to substance abuse and academic problems, too. Anti-bullying programs work, she said, but too many students are afraid to tell an adult or believe that adults won't do anything.
In a 2010 survey of Minnesota students in the sixth, ninth and 12th grades, 57 percent reported they had been a victim of bullying or had bullied another student within the past month. Thirteen percent reported they were bullied at least once a week.
Swanson's draft legislation, which would replace current law, is based on a law that North Dakota enacted earlier this year. Hilstrom does not have a Republican co-sponsor but believes she will find one.
"Bullying is not a partisan issue," she said.
Sen. Scott Dibble, DFL-Minneapolis, who has been working with the governor, said Swanson's legislation contains good provisions, although he believes it is lacking in some respects.
"But at this point it's a draft, and I look forward to having her participating in the larger effort," he said.
Dibble and others have sought to have the bullying laws amended to specifically mention groups that often are targets of bullies because of their sexual orientation, national origin, disability, physical characteristics or other attributes.
Gov. Tim Pawlenty vetoed such a bill in 2009, saying that current law was sufficient because it prohibits bullying "against any student for any reason."
The draft legislation defines bullying by its effects: conduct that interferes with the student's educational opportunities, disrupts orderly operation of the school or places the student in "actual and reasonable" fear of harm or damage to property. It does not define protected categories of students, but it does say that schools should step in when bullying occurs at school, on a bus, on a walking route or at a school activity.
Like current law, the bill would stop short of imposing policies on school districts but would require districts to create policies by Jan. 1, 2013, that establish procedures for:
- Educating students and staff about bullying;
- Reporting, documenting and investigating alleged acts of bullying or retaliation;
- Protecting students who are subject to bullying or who report it;
- Disciplining students found guilty of bullying or of making a false report. Staff members failing to respond to a report also would face discipline.
School districts also would be required to file an annual report with the attorney general's office, detailing the nature and disposition of bullying incidents.
Anoka-Hennepin schools Superintendent Dennis Carlson said his district already has adopted many of those measures. The district, the state's largest, has been under scrutiny for the past couple of years over issues involving bullying and sexual orientation. Anoka-Hennepin is in mediation over a lawsuit and also is the subject of a federal civil rights investigation, both involving its handling of allegations of bullying based on sexual orientation.
"Bullying is an issue for the community and the state," Carlson said. "Everyone is going to need to be involved if we're going to eliminate bullying. ... Some of the things we're doing right now are going to get us closer than any generation before us to eliminating bullying."
Charlie Kyte, former executive director of the Minnesota Association of School Administrators, cautioned, however, that bullying is a thorny issue. Any response requires flexibility and serious forethought, he said.
"Whatever changes are proposed need to be carefully thought out because there will likely be some unforeseen reactions that might actually hurt more than help," he said, noting potential new costs, the effect on staff time and the dangers of overreporting or underreporting allegations.
Swanson said the goal is to help make reporting the norm.
"Laws and rules won't stop all bullying, but it can create a strong culture and a strong tone that bullying won't be tolerated," she said.