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Bullying report a good school ‘toolkit’ even if law changes are slow to come

The panelists delivered to Dayton not just their detailed report but also a highly unusual second document, a letter pleading for swift action.

Never mind that more than half of all middle- and high-school students reported being bullied in the 2010-2011 school year, 14 of the nation’s 20 largest school districts failed to log a single instance.
CORBIS/Justin Paget

Had a group of cynics been appointed to the governor’s task force on the prevention of bullying, they might have been forgiven for approaching their task, in Minnesota, in the ideologically polarized era of 2012, as a pro forma exercise.

“There’s precisely zero chance the Legislature, as currently configured, will be willing to replace our anemic anti-bullying statute, so why bother?” a jaded individual might have said to themselves upon receiving Mark Dayton’s letter last March.

But the panel’s 15 members are educators, psychologists, district leaders and school-climate and harassment experts — in short, the people who are first to hear about each new student suicide and those who are in a position to know the deaths are avoidable.

They knew that Minnesota’s anti-bullying law, at 37 words, is the nation’s weakest, and that in the absence of a legal mandate, some districts were failing to act, or simply didn’t know how to.

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And, perhaps most compelling, they’ve just spent four months on the road traveling around the state listening to kids’ first-person accounts of bullying, harassment and intimidation.

On Wednesday, the panelists delivered Dayton not just their report, but a highly unusual second document, a letter pleading for swift action.

“The task force has specifically chosen to emphasize its collective sense of urgency [PDF] to the governor, the Legislature, and other stakeholders to begin the processes necessary to enact the recommendations contained within the report,” the statement said. “Our sense of urgency directly reflects what the public has told us throughout this process. The reality is that many students are in crisis right now and efforts to effect positive change have already taken too long.”

The 46 pages that followed [PDF] contain a detailed roadmap that starts with a clearly articulated definition of the conduct that needs to be addressed, traverses the relevant statutory and policymaking grounds (has any state task force in history ever outlined, in order and with an appended glossary, the elements a statute should contain?) and then tours the less-charted waters of how to change a school’s climate, right down to methods for reaching out not just to the bullied but to bullies.

Never mind that more than half of all middle- and high-school students reported being bullied in the 2010-2011 school year, 14 of the nation’s 20 largest school districts failed to log a single instance. Minnesota’s three largest districts, the Anoka-Hennepin School District, St. Paul Public Schools and Minneapolis Public Schools, failed to report any episodes to federal overseers.

The state task force called for the repeal of the existing, ineffective Minnesota statute, replacing it with a law that clearly defines the harmful conduct at issue, including cyber-bullying, mandating the reporting of data about incidents and responses and the creation of a school climate division within the state Department of Education.

The state, the group said, should create a “baseline, minimum” response required of every school, public or private, and provide districts with the tools to meet that standard. If adopted, the task force’s recommendations would represent bold steps.

Will the loyal opposition at the statehouse, the ultra-conservative lawmakers whose objections run the gamut from local control to no special laws for special populations, read it and undergo a conversion? Not likely.

Can the state Department of Education (MDE) implement many of the recommendations anyhow, via rulemaking? No, but it can begin nibbling at the fringes, according to Assistant MDE Commissioner Rose Hermodson.

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While there is no one bright line dividing policies the department can implement itself from those it needs enabling legislation to create, MDE’s authority to require action by school districts — data collection, for instance, or the use of a particular definition of bullying — is limited.

“But there’s a lot of good direction here to local districts,” Hermodson said. “They should have some of these things in place right now, whether we pass a new law or not.”

Indeed, the report is annotated with enough links and citations to help a weary administrator — or community leader — begin arming a response to a school climate crisis.

“We do know there are problems in schools and with kids because we heard from an awful lot of them as we went around the state,” she said. “What we’re mainly trying to say is you need to be addressing this.”

The absence of a legal mandate from the state may no longer justify not addressing intimidating conduct, either. The site of a suicide contagion many believed was fueled by its harmful policy of “neutrality” on gay and lesbian issues, Anoka-Hennepin Schools last year faced a federal civil rights suit as well as investigations by the U.S. departments of Justice and Education.

The settlement worked out earlier this year in that case has been heralded as the model upon which federal enforcement of civil rights laws. For instance, not only is Anoka-Hennepin now required to track reports of bullying and staff’s responses, systems are in development to use the data to identify hot spots, be they geographic or digital, where kids are in danger.

At a minimum, the state task force’s report may serve as a toolkit for districts that have reason to fear they may be in for scrutiny by the feds.