House panel forwards school anti-bullying bill

MARSHALL – A little more than one year ago, Gov. Mark Dayton established the Governor’s Task Force on the Prevention of School Bullying.

This week, the Legislature took the anti-bullying campaign a step further when the House Education Policy Committee approved a bill that would require all school districts to enact their own bullying prevention policies, and would set aside $1 million in state funds for the Department of Education to help schools formulate their policies.

“Kids need a safe learning environment,” Rep. Chris Swedzinski, R-Ghent said. “I think the conversation needs to happen. There are always different ways to get there.”

Minnesota’s bullying policies had been considered by many to be lax compared to other states – before now Minnesota had the shortest anti-bullying law in the U.S. at fewer than 40 words – and the task force devised eight recommendations that, it said, required “immediate and urgent action.”

The recommendations included a repeal of existing and ineffective state statutes on bullying, harassment and intimidation and the replacement of such statutes with strong and effective laws; the creation of clear and consistent baseline policies to address bullying, harassment and intimidation in school so every child would be equally protected while at school; and the creation of policies and practices that would enhance communication among school personnel, students, parents and communities to reduce bullying, harassment and intimidation.

“We heard a lot of analysis that Minnesota has a weak bullying policy as a whole, and when you dive down into it, most schools have policies in place to address the issues,” Swedzinski said. “I’ve talked to a lot of school districts that are a little leery of the state coming down with some big programs because of a lack of funding that normally follows.”

The Legislature hasn’t acted on a bullying law since 2008 when it amended a 2006 law to include cyberbullying provisions.

Swedzinski’s concerned about the issue being deluged with too much politics, which could mean schools might eventually lose some local control when it comes to dealing with bullying. The bill would seemingly address that, but Swedzinski hopes all schools will be able to hold on to that authority imminently.

“The one-size-fits-all policy doesn’t necessarily work; what works in Minneapolis and St. Paul might not be what’s best for Marshall,” he said. “We want to have local control in every school district. When I look at proposals, one of the conversations I’m having with school boards, superintendents, principals, is, do they feel they are going to have a voice and feel comfortable with it?”

Swedzinski said it’s vital that parents are engaged, especially in today’s world where plenty of bullying takes place off school grounds.

“A lot of the issues school counselors are dealing with are on a Monday with issues that came up over the weekend, maybe something that happened on Facebook,” he said. “At what point do we look at parents who are handing off the responsibility to schools when something happened during the weekend when schools didn’t have anything to do with it?

“When I misbehaved my folks took care of business, so we need to look at how much the plan does to re-engage parents,” he added. “If all it does is empower bureaucrats, it doesn’t do anything.”