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Combating school bullying: Protect the progress that Minnesota has made

Shortly after the 2016 presidential election, the Southern Poverty Law Center reported a drastic spike in bullying and harassment incidents across the nation’s schools. Minnesota was no exception, with teachers reporting several instances of racial, anti-Muslim, and sexual harassment just within the first month after the election. 

Brenda Cassellius

But there’s been a silver lining to this disturbing pattern of behavior. In Minnesota, we’ve seen scores of students from different backgrounds come together in solidarity. If a student is bullied for being gay, or if a young Muslim girl walking to class gets pulled by her hijab, they can takes some comfort in the fact that a larger and diverse group of students will come to their defense. Teachers across Minnesota are also working hard to ensure that all students have a safe space to learn and express themselves. 

This new generation of students is using their collective voice and influence to demand that their schools be safe and supportive environments for learning. Before 2014, Minnesota’s anti-bullying statute was widely considered to be one the weakest in the nation. Many school administrators lacked the proper training and support to address issues of diversity, tolerance and acceptance, and the few students brave enough to initiate school support groups often encountered roadblocks trying to establish them. It was this culture that led to our state’s largest school district becoming the target of a major lawsuit for failing to protect students from anti-LGBTQ harassment. 

MinnPost/Erin Hinrichs
Tom Rademacher

Minnesota leaders, policymakers came together

Thankfully, state policymakers and education leaders united to protect our students. Together with a coalition of students, parents and educators, Gov. Mark Dayton worked with the Minnesota House and Senate to pass and sign Minnesota’s comprehensive anti-bullying law. While for many of us, it should have been a no-brainer, the bill unfortunately got caught up in the hysteria surrounding the gender-identity bathroom debate. But advocates for the bill were resolute in communicating that this debate was about protecting all students – regardless of gender, race, sexual orientation, gender identity, ethnicity or religion – and they eventually succeeded. 

The Safe and Supportive Schools Act established the School Safety Technical Assistance Center, which provides schools with resources and training focused on school climate improvement and bullying prevention and intervention. In addition to direct school support, the Minnesota Departments of Education, Health, Human Services and Public Safety conduct a triennial confidential survey asking students about their health and safety. Last year, the survey included questions pertaining to the LGBTQ community. The results were alarming: Transgender and gender diverse students were more than twice as likely to be bullied – and four times more likely to have attempted suicide – than their cisgender peers. These sobering survey results provided valuable insight for Minnesotans to keep working on improving school conditions for our most vulnerable students. 

So when the Trump administration rescinded the previous administration’s guidance on transgender students, we reiterated our commitment to ensuring gender diverse students felt safe at school, and continued to follow our state’s own guidance on the matter. Ultimately, state leaders and local educators are responsible for formulating and carrying out education policy, and our role is now more important than ever. 

Bill would eliminate funding for Assistance Center

Yet, some of our hard-fought protections are being fought locally as well. Minnesota’s Legislature is considering a bill that would eliminate funding for the School Safety Technical Assistance Center, wiping out the model of support built over the last three years at a time when we know our students and school need the support more than ever. 

At a time when educational equity advocates are taking note, we should protect the progress we’ve made. Minnesota’s major advancements in the area of school climate and culture align closely with a number of recommendations in a joint report released this year by the Aspen Institute and the Council of Chief State School Officers titled Leading for Equity: Opportunities for State Education Chiefs. The report recommends a number of ways state education leaders can work to provide safe and supportive school environments for students who need it the most, including: 

  • Measuring indicators of school culture to identify disparities and lead initiatives to address them.
  • Providing targeted professional development for teachers and other school personnel on supporting students’ social and emotional development. 
  • Advocating for additional funding and technical assistance to support mental and physical health services in schools with the greatest need. 

For those states and school districts that are facing their own challenges with harassment and unwelcoming school climates, we urge them to look to our progress as a model for supporting students and creating the conditions for students to advocate on their own behalf. We can ensure that every student experiences a safe, supportive and meaningful learning environment when state and district leaders work with educators, students and communities to craft responsive policy.

Brenda Cassellius is Minnesota’s education commissioner. Tom Rademacher was named Minnesota Teacher of the Year in 2014. 

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