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Catholic Church favors anti-bullying efforts — just not so-called ‘Safe and Supportive Schools Act’

The Catholic Church unequivocally abhors the bullying of all children, and believes schools and communities should undertake steps to combat this problem.

An April 22 MinnPost article, “Catholic Church ramps up opposition to Minnesota anti-bullying bill,” contained critical errors and omissions about the local Catholic Church’s opposition to so-called anti-bullying bill being considered in the Legislature.

adkins portrait
Jason Adkins

The Minnesota Catholic Conference (MCC), which represents the Catholic Church in Minnesota at the Legislature, was not contacted by the reporter for an interview or to comment on the church’s position. Thus, it is important to set the record straight so the public understands our advocacy on the matter of anti-bullying.

The Catholic Church unequivocally abhors the bullying of all children, and believes schools and communities should undertake steps to combat this problem. We consistently voiced this throughout our advocacy in support of last year’s marriage-amendment ballot question in the attempt to clarify what we were saying about marriage, and what we were not saying about our gay and lesbian brothers and sisters.

The policy in Catholic schools is to treat every child as someone created in the image and likeness of God; this includes young people experiencing same-sex attraction. In fact, one student involved in the bullying lawsuit against the Anoka-Hennepin school district transferred to a Catholic school.

Other policies should be considered

Though Minnesota has a policy directing local districts to create anti-bullying policies (its brevity being irrelevant to its substance), other policies can and should be considered to combat the problem.

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But not all anti-bullying policies protect children and the community against bullying equally. The particular bill to which MCC objects is the so-called “Safe and Supportive Schools Act” (SF 783/HF 826). The bill has several problems. For example:

  • It is unconstitutional. As First Amendment scholars on both sides of the same-sex marriage debate have concluded, the bill has serious constitutional problems. It uses vague terms to define bullying that could turn the law into an instrument of intimidation against those with whom someone disagrees. One national expert described the bill as a “First Amendment nightmare.” 
  • The bill imposes its mandates and costs on private schools. In an unprecedented state interference with the religious freedom, governance, and autonomy of private schools, the bill directs them to comply with its costly reporting, investigative and disciplinary mandates. Curriculum components of the bill that are currently “encouraged” could become mandates in the future. Contrary to popular perception and a proffered justification of this bill, private schools do not receive public funds. Students of private schools that do not comply with the bill’s mandates may lose their individual pupil aid — including textbooks, counseling and nursing services. Private schools already have enormous incentives to create safe environments for kids because if they don’t, parents can take their tuition dollars elsewhere.
  • It is expensive. During a time when both public and private schools in Minnesota are struggling to get by it is estimated that the statewide increased cost to local school districts will be nearly $26 million in 2014 alone, and that number is expected to increase slightly from year to year.
  • It does not protect all kids. One would hope that a bill with such a hefty price tag would fairly and equally protect all children. But the bill enumerates certain types of students and characteristics that count as susceptible to bullying instead of creating a program that protects all kids from harassment and abuse. People should be protected from bullying because they are human beings, not because of a particular trait.

A few of these problems have, properly, led to some changes to the House version of the bill — including the removal of the private school mandates — but more amendments should be made. The Senate version has not yet seen similar changes.

As stated clearly in our 2013 legislative positions, MCC welcomes legislation aimed at combating school bullying. Indeed, two other legislative proposals have been introduced this session, including one bill based on the highly rated North Dakota model that was publicly endorsed by Minnesota Attorney General Lori Swanson.

Both are better alternatives

Both proposals are better alternatives and should be considered instead of a bill that could impose significant costs on public and private schools as well as litigation costs on the state budget.

The MinnPost article quoted Senate sponsor Scott Dibble as saying that the Archdiocese of St. Paul & Minneapolis had not done anything to address the problem of school bullying legislatively. Dibble knows well, however, that MCC represents the Archdiocese on such matters, and that he has denied many MCC requests to meet with him about the bill.

MCC did meet multiple times with advocates from the LGBT community and OutFront Minnesota (the chief proponent of the bill) to try to find common ground; as well, MCC made abundantly clear in legislative testimony that the Church was concerned about bullying and welcomed proposals to combat the problem.

To imply that opposition to the “Safe and Supportive Schools Act” means the Catholic Church supports bullying is simply a dishonest representation of the facts. We welcome other anti-bullying legislation and hope to see those proposals move forward.

Jason Adkins is executive director of the Minnesota Catholic Conference.

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Cathedral of St. Paul image by Flickr user Steve Moses and used under Creative Commons License.