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Anti-bullying bill continues on its tortured path

Sen. Scott Dibble, right, conferring with House bill sponsor Jim Davnie
MinnPost file photo by James Nord
The bill's chief Senate author Scott Dibble, right, conferring with House bill sponsor Jim Davnie at the Minnesota Capitol in a May 2013 photo.

If Senate File 826 becomes the law of the land, it will be after following a path so tortured that it might serve as a graduate exam in parliamentary procedure.

Since 2 a.m. on May 20, the Minnesota Safe and Supportive Schools Act has been "lying on a table" at the State Capitol awaiting resurrection. Its DFL authors tabled it — and this is where the expression comes from — in the final hours of the 2013 Legislature when their GOP counterparts threatened a 10-hour, session-slaughtering filibuster.

On Thursday, the anti-bullying measure will be dusted off in the venue where it was last considered, the Senate Finance Committee. There will be a hearing and there will be some grumbling — and not from the measure’s original foes, who argued long and hard last year that it threatened freedom of religion.

If it makes it out of committee — expected but not assured — it will be with a “delete-all” amendment, meaning much of the current text will be stricken and replaced by new language.

From there, it would go to the floor, or the full Senate, after which it would need to be revisited at least once by both legislative chambers and likely a conference committee. Assuming everyone approves the finessed and re-finessed language — which cannot change after conference — finally it would go to Gov. Mark Dayton for signing.

Orwellian fears

Why the tortured route for a measure most folks ostensibly welcome?

Last May, days after the Senate’s vote to recognize marriage equality, social conservatives redirected their energy to the anti-bullying bill. Calling it an extension of the push for same-sex marriage, the Archdiocese of St. Paul and Minneapolis insisted that the law was an “Orwellian nightmare,” that would “usurp parental rights” and create “re-education camps.”

The House amended the measure, based on the work of a state task force, inserting language protecting students from supposed religious harassment and recognizing their constitutional right to free religious speech.

Further, private schools were exempted yet — much to the irritation of public education advocates, who were publicly thrilled with the “new money” schools were ending up with but privately depressed to still be squeezing nickels — allowed to keep $75 million a year in state aid.

Nonetheless, when Senate GOPers threatened to run out the clock in the waning hours of the session, the bill’s sponsors were forced to table it.  

“So much for Republicans' vows to refashion themselves as a more inclusive and ‘caring’ party in the aftermath of their last election’s shellacking,” the measure’s chief Senate author, Minneapolis’ Scott Dibble, posted to his Facebook page. “How does killing a bullying bill by threatening a 10-hour filibuster in the closing hours of the legislative session square with that?

“I assured Minority Leader David Hann, who delivered the threat to me personally, that we will pass every single word of this bill into law as soon as we return to the second half of this biennial session next February,” Dibble added. “It is unconscionable to force Minnesota students to endure another year without the safety and support in their own schools that is their right.”

Enforcement concerns

Alas, it’s not likely to be so quick. This year the measure faces quiet apprehension from the agencies that represent school districts and their leaders, who have spent the intervening months nursing concerns about enforcing the dramatically beefed up law.

Quietly because after the heated din of last spring, there is concern that opposing the bill may be perceived as indifferent to gay and lesbian students and those whose gender identity would be protected by it.  

Reached at the Capitol Monday, both Dibble and his House counterpart, bill sponsor Jim Davnie, also a Minneapolis DFLer, said that they believe that the tightened up language to be introduced Thursday would address “legitimate concerns.”

At issue is enforcement. School administrators want the definition of bullying made more precise, as well as reassurance that they will be able to manage everything from guidance to classroom volunteers to the number of languages in which a district must publish its harassment policies.

Even after the measure is rewritten it will face opposition from some corners of the “education cartel,” Davnie predicted: “The grownups around here recognize we rarely get everything we want.”

And the louder, more loyal opposition? Columnist Katherine Kersten last week authored an opinion piece published in the Star Tribune promising that Minnesota schoolchildren will be exposed to dangerous pro-LGBT curricula. And a threatened religious right billboard campaign has mostly failed to appear. 

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Comments (3)

Taxpayers should question why

Taxpayers should question why any state aid is given to private schools, much less $75 million. Nevertheless, private schools taking that aid they should be required to follow the same rules as public schools do - without any exceptions; if they can't do that then pull all funding from them.

Senate Minority Leader David Hann happened to stop by the Safe Schools Rally at the Capitol on Monday afternoon and shared with several of us three reasons why he opposed the anti-bullying bill: it will cost too much, it would interfere with elected school board officials, and it wouldn’t stop bullying in schools.

Cost is a concern when implementing any law. Still, if the DNR can spend $68 M to nurture and protect fish and wildlife, why can’t we budget a much lesser amount to do the same with vulnerable, bullied youth?

Hann’s concern about imposing state guidelines on local school boards disregards the obvious - the state already imposes many guidelines on school districts without a peep from him. Besides, if all school boards worked as diligently to prevent bullying as he asserted they do, this bill would not even be in front of the Legislature.

His third claim that the bill won’t prevent bullying is without merit. Under this bill, once bullying has occurred and is reported, school officials would take corrective action to prevent further bullying - thereby giving bullied kids the hope and courage to live another day.

I wonder how many kids have lost that hope and courage since Gov. Pawlenty vetoed a similar bill in 2009. Their graves remain silent, so we must speak out in their remembrance and demand this bill be passed.

Gotta agree

… with Wes Davey about most, if not all, of the points he makes.

That's especially true in regard to private schools. If *you* want the money, you should have to follow the same rules everyone else does if *they* want the money.

Davey's counterpoint to Senator Hann's argument about costs is well-taken. If deer and ducks and fish were running the society, giving them a preference would make sense, but humans run the society, and if we're protecting and nurturing the next generation, the preference should lean toward human needs and concerns.

I'm also in agreement with Davey about imposing rules upon local school districts. Mr. Hann apparently doesn't get out much, or is wearing his usual ideological blinders, as Mr. Davey's point about other impositions from the state on local school districts and boards is incontrovertible.

To my own astonishment, I must admit that I have to agree, at least in part, with Mr. Hann's third point. Passage of an anti-bullying bill will not, of itself, and even if its provisions are carried out to the letter, end bullying. That's the extent of my agreement, however. Passing the bill will begin to impose some negative consequences for bullying, and all by itself, that might at least lessen its presence in school environments. Really doing away with it altogether doesn't strike me as something a legislative fix is likely to accomplish. Kids who bully often come from authoritarian homes where the parents are themselves bullies – not much a school district can about the home situation, though the bill might enable school districts to minimize the carryover from home to school.

Adolescence brings with it enough problems, there's no reason why we should condone bullying as an additional burden on the shoulders of the kids at the receiving end.

Why do we need a "bullying bill"?

I hope that no one thinks that this or any bill will end bullying... The focus should be on fortifying an individual to deal with bullying on a personal level.