Minnesota attorney general turns up the heat on school bullies

Minnesota must toughen its anti-bullying laws after drawing national attention in recent years for incidents in its schools, Attorney General Lori Swanson said Wednesday.

"When bullying happens, oftentimes it happens and is encouraged because it happens in secret. It's not reported; it's not investigated," she said at a Capitol news conference, where she proposed legislation creating a policy on reporting bullying to authorities.

Under her proposal, districts would need to adopt policies by Jan. 1, 2013, that would prohibit students from bullying and retaliating against victims or those who report bullying.

Districts also would be required to establish procedures for immediate reporting, investigation and discipline, and, in some cases, would be required to notify police.

Bullying prevention programs would need to be provided for all K-12 students, and districts would be required to file annual reports with the attorney general on bullying incidents in their schools.

State figures show 13 percent of sixth-, ninth- and 12th-graders report being bullied once or more per week, Swanson said. And bullying contributes to absenteeism, depression and sometimes crime by the perpetrator or victims, she said.

Bullying often occurs in front of adults but goes unreported, Swanson said, and her bill would create "mandatory reporting."

Minnesota's current anti-bullying law "is one of the shortest in the nation," she said. It simply requires schools to adopt a written policy prohibiting bullying without laying out standards or reporting requirements, Swanson said.

Her bill, which Rep. Debra Hilstrom, DFL-Brooklyn Center, said she would carry in the House, is patterned after one recently passed in North Dakota.

That state's law has an "A++" rating by the national website bullypolice.org, while Minnesota's has a "C-," the lowest of any state except for three that have no such laws, Swanson said.

Bloomington police Sgt. Marty Earley, who appeared with Swanson and Hilstrom, said the law would "help us in Minnesota to make it so that the adults have to do something about it, and if they don't, at least they have to tell the police and we can do something about it."

Joining Swanson on Wednesday were students wearing orange T-shirts with the word "Bully" circled and crossed out.

William Voigt, 10, told a story about a bullied classmate with a speech impediment at his Richfield school.

"There's a group of kids that just go after him," he said. "Half of the time it's physical; half the time they use words to hurt him. It's been going on for two years as far as I know.

"It just hurts him a lot. He doesn't really have much friends. The kids just don't stop going after him."

It's hard for other students to know what to do about the bullying, William said.

"Some of the kids, they want to do something, but they're too scared to do it, and they're scared of the bully and they're afraid that they will pick on them," he said. "And other kids just don't really even care."

In Minnesota, the Anoka-Hennepin school district has grabbed headlines about bullying in recent years, largely for its handling of issues related to sexual orientation.

The district was sued twice in the past year over its Sexual Orientation Curriculum Policy and its alleged connection to bullying of gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender students.

The district, which is undergoing mediation for both lawsuits, contends its bullying and harassment policies are comprehensive.

"We think we fare pretty well when compared with the rest of the state .... But if the attorney general has improvements she wants to see in policies statewide, obviously we take that kind of direction under consideration," said Brett Johnson, a spokesman for the district.

Anoka-Hennepin strengthened bullying prevention efforts this year by implementing a data tracking system that allows school officials to better monitor disciplinary problems, he added.

Greg Abbott, a spokesman for the Minnesota School Boards Association, said Wednesday that his group had no comment about Swanson's proposal because it wasn't familiar with the North Dakota law.

"However, we agree that protecting kids in our schools is a top priority and look forward to working with all advocates on this issue in the upcoming legislative session," Abbott said in an email.

Swanson's proposal covers alleged bullying on school grounds and during school-sanctioned events.

She acknowledged that bullying by texting or social media is tougher to police, but she said those incidents typically make their way into school eventually.

The law would offer criminal or civil immunity for school officials who act promptly to address bullying.

Hilstrom said she hadn't started trying to line up Republican support for the measure, but she called it a "bipartisan issue."

Swanson said she's optimistic the legislation, which would require no new state money, will pass.

"I think there's been so much attention to bullying, and I think everybody knows we have a problem," she said.

"Policies and laws and reporting alone can't stop bullying, but they can create a strong tone in school culture against it, and that's what we're trying to do."

Republican Pat Garofalo of Farmington, chairman of the House Education Finance committee, said he hadn't seen the bill and couldn't comment on it.

Efforts to reach House Education Reform committee chairwoman Sondra Erickson, R-Princeton, and Senate Education committee chairman Gen Olson, R-Minnetrista, were not successful.

Pioneer Press
Article Publish Date: 
November 12, 2011