Minn. AG pushes for tougher anti-bullying law

For Caroline Odegard, bullying came last year in the form of classmates' rumors and gossip. She says it made for a tough fourth grade at Cedar Ridge Elementary in Eden Prairie.

"It even got to the point where we told the teacher about it, and they pulled them out into the hall. And that didn't help, so they got sent to the principal's office," she said.

Caroline and several other students wore orange anti-bullying T-shirts to a news conference held Wednesday by Attorney General Lori Swanson, who said Minnesota should adopt a tougher anti-bullying law.

"When bullying happens, a lot of it happens in the dark. Bullies rely on power and they rely on people not doing anything about it," Swanson said. "What we're trying to do is foster an environment where bullying would be reported and taken seriously."

Swanson wants Minnesota to adopt a law like one passed by lawmakers in North Dakota earlier this year. It requires each school district to adopt a written anti-bullying policy, and track and investigate reports of bulling in school and at school activities.

It would also require schools to call police if they suspect a crime occurred, establish strategies to protect bullying victims, and establish bullying prevention programs.

Swanson said school districts would also have to keep their bullying policies on file with her office and report bullying incidents to the state each year.

Minnesota's current law is one of the shortest in the country. It requires school districts to have an anti-bullying policy, but Swanson said it lacks teeth. She said the problem is so pervasive that getting sent to the principal's office simply isn't enough.

Swanson also mentioned the scandal at Penn State, where a former assistant football coach is accused of sexually abusing several boys over the past several years, as an example of what can happen when incidents go unreported.

"You look at the numbers: 13 percent of all Minnesota children in grades 6, 9 and 12 say they're bullied regularly, which means at least once a week or more. By the numbers, that's 100,000 Minnesota kids that are bullied regularly," she said.

Several outside groups have criticized Minnesota's current anti-bullying law for not being tough enough. A national organization called Bully Police USA gave Minnesota a C- grade on its anti-bullying law. In contrast, North Dakota received an A++, Swanson said.

"If North Dakota can pass a law like this on a bipartisan basis, then so can Minnesota," she said. "We shouldn't be getting national headlines because of bullying."

Rep. Debra Hilstrom, DFL-Brooklyn Center, also spoke at the news conference, along with a Bloomington police sergeant.

Hilstrom said she had not yet sought support from her Republican colleagues, who control both houses of the Legislature. But she said she thinks the legislation is something everyone can support.

"Bullying is not a partisan issue. Kids need to feel safe in school," she said.

Bullying legislation hasn't made much progress at the Capitol, though. Legislation offered by the DFL minority has won little support across the aisle.

Republicans responded coolly again today to Swanson's announcement.

Rep. Tony Cornish, R-Good Thunder, questioned the need for additional legislation. Cornish, who chairs the House Public Safety Committee, said he's spoken to school resource officers across the state and they've told him the current policies are enough.

"If the school resource officers feel they have enough tools at their disposal to handle something, we shouldn't burden them more just to be popular, and react to something that happens to be on the newswires," Cornish said.

Cornish said he doesn't take issue with the mandatory reporting part of the legislation, but he'd want to know how much it would cost. Swanson said she thinks costs will be minimal, but no budgetary analysis has been completed on the proposal.

No Republican lawmakers attended the news conference, and the chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee said he didn't hear about the proposal until afterward.

"Usually when you're touting a bipartisan tone about any upcoming legislation to be considered, you certainly would want to circulate the idea and allow [the other side] to contribute to the discussion," said Sen. Warren Limmer, R-Maple Grove.

Limmer said members of his party are concerned about bullying.

"The question is, do we go through the whole process and expense?" he asked. "It gets to be a very large bureaucracy. Sometimes you'd have to determine whether the circumstances and the frequency and the intensity of the threat would justify the thing, and that all takes careful research."

An MPR News investigation published in May found that even with the law, the state did little to ensure compliance, and school policies varied widely among the state's 492 districts and charter schools.

A spokesman for the Minnesota School Boards Association said his group hadn't had a chance to examine North Dakota's law, but said bullying is an important issue that school board representatives look forward to discussing during the upcoming legislative session.

One Minnesota school district, the Anoka-Hennepin district in the northern Twin Cities suburbs, is facing a lawsuit filed by several students who claim they were bullied and that school officials took insufficient action to stop it.

The lawsuit doesn't attack the district's anti-bullying policy, but says a curriculum policy keeping discussions of sexual orientation out of classrooms has contributed to a hostile environment for gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender students. The district has argued that the two issues are separate and that bullying is clearly prohibited under the district's policies.

Minnesota Public Radio
Article Publish Date: 
November 23, 2011