Anti-bullying law a reality — to the chagrin of Republicans

MARSHALL – Two local Republican senators have recently spoken out against new anti-bullying legislation which cleared the Senate last week, and on the day the bill was signed into law by Gov. Mark Dayton, a pair of House members from District 16 shared similar feelings hours after the bill purported to strengthen the state’s anti-bullying law passed.

The House debated the controversial bill for 12 hours Tuesday before passing it on a 69-63 vote that fell mostly along party lines. Three Democrats joined the Republicans in the House in voting against the bill.

“We had a lot of folks that heard from their districts and school administrators and school board members who all had a lot of concerns about this bill,” said Rep. Chris Swedzinski, R-Ghent. “We found a lot of the Democrats were hearing the same things, yet they still voted for the bill.”

District 16B Rep. Paul Torkelson, R-Nelson Township, said while he didn’t speak personally on the bill Tuesday, there were many in his caucus who felt passionate about the issue and wanted to speak for their constituents.

“This was their chance to express their views on this bill, and it took on a little extra significance mostly because they had a lot of folks in their district with concerns about the bill and the constituents wanted their legislators to speak on it.”

Swedzinski said the debate drew on so long because there are so many problems with the bill and concerns that it’s too overreaching and too costly. He said the bill is flawed in many ways, including the stealing of local control from schools and the potential for a disengagement with parents when bullying problems arise.

“What’s going to happen is a lot of our schools are not going to engage with parents,” he said. “That’s unfortunate. I think there’s a general disengagement with parents in the lives of their children, maybe not in southwest Minnesota, but there are issues in the urban and metro areas, and I think that’s where they were trying to go after with these policies. Unfortunately, they’re sweeping us all up with it at the same time.”

Torkelson, too, is worried about a potential decline in parental involvement and said parents are being “taken out of the loop” with the new law since the bill doesn’t include a requirement for an automatic notification to parents when something happens at school. He said he doesn’t deny bullying is a real issue – one made more complicated by electronic communication tools available today – but thinks parents need to be more in the picture.

The bill defines bullying as behavior that interrupts another student’s opportunity to learn or participate in a school activity, prohibits false reports of bullying and requires corroboration of bullying accusations.

The bill would require school districts to track and investigate cases of bullying and require schools to better train staff and teachers on how to prevent it. Current law requires school districts to have a bullying policy but omits details on what the policy should contain. But opponents of the bill worry about the costs of implementation, among other things.

Swedzinski said bureaucrats in St. Paul shouldn’t be the ones deciding on what’s best for students in their respective schools districts. He calls the mantra that Minnesota has one of the weakest bullying policies in the country disingenuous and, like other Republicans, is concerned not only about the intrusive nature of the legislation but also about the price tag that comes with implementation and training – costs that will have to be covered by the schools and the state.

“That’s why you saw such a long debate,” Swedzinski said. “We were pleading, saying this is unnecessary, and above and beyond everything is the cost of this – you’re looking at $20 million to $25 million of unfunded mandates – those are dollars that are not going into classrooms.”

Swedzinski and Torkelson said the new all-encompassing legislation is one-size-fits-all and schools shouldn’t lose the local-control advantage they have under current law.

“The biggest red flag for me is this bill is a kind of mandate to our local school districts,” Torkelson said. “I have great faith in my local school district, the school board, the teachers, to take care of these issues on a local level. I trust the teachers and parents to take care of our kids.”