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Dayton’s signature caps long-fought effort to curb bullying in schools

MinnPost photo by Craig Lassig
Jake Ross, 11, of Forest Lake; Gov. Mark Dayton; Rep. Jim Davnie, DFL-Minneapolis; and Sen. D. Scott Dibble, DFL-District 61, gather for the signing of the Safe and Supportive Schools Act on the steps of the Capitol.

It was, finally, Walter Roberts’ moment in the sun.

Wednesday afternoon found Roberts standing on the front steps of the state Capitol in a gold silk vest and tie that were the exact shade of the gilt statuary — appropriately titled “Progress of the State” —  several stories above him.

To his immediate right stood Minneapolis DFLers Sen. Scott Dibble and Rep. Jim Davnie, chief authors of the Safe and Supportive Schools Act. A few feet away at a small desk, Gov. Mark Dayton signed the hard-fought anti-bullying measure into law.

A professor of school counseling at Minnesota State University Mankato, Roberts is one of Safe Schools’ under-celebrated champions. Formally, he was the co-chair of the state task force whose work underlies the new law.

Ringing alarm bell since 2001

MinnPost file photo by Terry Gydesen
Walter Roberts

But really Roberts, who intentionally kept a low profile, was the campaign’s worrier in chief. A nationally recognized expert, Roberts has been ringing the alarm bell about Minnesota’s school-climate crisis since 2001. 

Since February 2012, when Dayton tapped him to spearhead the effort, Roberts has spent so many hours criss-crossing the state that he drove a beloved Volkswagen Jetta into the ground and put 27,000 miles on a new Honda Civic.

This week alone, stressed about vote and threatened filibusters, Roberts made the trek from Mankato to the Twin Cities and back Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday. By the time he was ushered to a prime position at the signing ceremony, he was giddy from fatigue.

“This is a culmination of my life’s work and advocacy in this area and has dominated my life almost completely for the last two years,” he texted a reporter in the run-up to the event. “Today my back is sore, my legs and feet ache from crawling up and down those marble stairs wrangling for votes, and I’m sleep deprived, but it’s all worthwhile.”

An eight-year effort

Indeed, if ever there was an issue that needed a designated fretter it’s requiring schools to acknowledge and address bullying. For fully eight years, Minnesota lawmakers — mostly DFLers — have sought and failed to strengthen the state’s 37-word anti-harassment statute.

Last year, with the party in charge of both legislative chambers and the executive branch, few expected that Davnie and Dibble would be unable to maneuver a new law to passage. But House and Senate leaders, some of whom were tepid on the topic, didn’t move the measure until late in the session.

And even as marriage equality was garnering sturdy vote margins, opposition from the Archdiocese of St. Paul and Minneapolis and from fundamentalist groups had Davnie, Dibble, Roberts and others scrambling to combat claims that the anti-bullying bill would infringe on religious freedom.

After Senate GOPers threatened to run out the clock during the waning hours of the last night with a filibuster, Dibble shelved the measure, vowing to pass it first thing this year.

In fact, when Safe Schools was resurrected in February, the public education lobby was concerned that it would go through so quickly that there might not be time to make a number of technical changes that would make implementation less burdensome.

Resistance all the way

Yet even after the concerns were addressed the measure met resistance at every step. Tuesday, when it made its final stop on the House floor, six hours were set aside for testimony.

As that time limit came and went, GOP lawmakers called the bill facist and Orwellian, questioned the name the Revisor of Statutes had given it, asked the same questions multiple times and read the measure out loud.

As the seeming filibuster went on, Rep. Ryan Winkler, a Golden Valley DFLer, sent out a steady stream of comic tweets mocking the opposing party:

It was after midnight when the measure finally passed. Roberts did not get back on the road, however, before establishing the time the bill would be signed into law.

 “I actually have found myself breathing again,” Roberts announced the following morning. “And my lips are curling up in the corners.”

Comments (6)

  1. Submitted by Beth-Ann Bloom on 04/10/2014 - 12:24 pm.

    Time for a Change

    At the bill signing the 11 year old who spoke told the story of how he had been repeatedly brutalized in second grade and the school’s inaction to protect him. He thanked all the people who had worked to pass the bill and said, “Now is the time for bullying to go from a natural part of growing up to something that just doesn’t happen to kids.” It’s a shame that the opponents of the measure did not have the wisdom of the children who were bullied.

    My hope is that all across Minnesota we will watch to make sure this bill is implemented with the same tenacity and dedication shown by the leaders and students who brought it into law.

  2. Submitted by Jim Halonen on 04/10/2014 - 03:27 pm.

    Does anybody know

    From the vote totals, 36-31 in the Senate and 69-63 in the House, five DFL lawmakers opposed this bill along with the GOP members. We know the concerns the GOP had, does anybody know what issues these five DFL votes had with the bill?

  3. Submitted by Eric Snyder on 04/10/2014 - 03:53 pm.

    What explains the opposition to this bill?

    How could there have been any opposition to this bill to begin with?

    Anyone who pays close attention to contemporary political attitudes and beliefs already knows why: Right-wing paranoia, ignorance and fear of people who are “different.”

    (What explains DFL holdouts? I’m guessing they’re from more conservative outstate districts.)

    Then, there are right-wing thought leaders like Katherine Kersten who in a recent Star Tribune column appears to have intentionally mislead readers:

    “But a glance at the bill raises troubling questions. Why doesn’t it protect all children equally, instead of singling out for favored treatment children of “protected classes,” such as race, sexual orientation, and “gender identity and expression”? Why are traditional victims of bullying, like kids who are timid or viewed as nerds, invisible in this bill?”

    Now, compare the above with language from the ACTUAL BILL. The version of the bill below was introduced on Feb. 25, 2013—-one day shy of a _full year_ before she wrote her column, which should be more than enough time for her to get her facts straight.

    “(f) “Prohibited conduct” means bullying, cyberbullying, harassment, or intimidation as defined under this subdivision, retaliation for asserting or alleging such conduct, perpetuating such conduct by transmitting hurtful or demeaning material, or engaging in speech that will materially disrupt a student’s learning environment. Prohibited conduct includes discriminatory conduct based on a person’s actual or perceived race, ethnicity, color, creed, religion, national origin, immigration status, sex, marital status, familial
    status, socioeconomic status, physical appearance, sexual orientation, gender identity and expression, academic status, disability, or status with regard to public assistance, age, or any additional characteristic defined in chapter 363A, as well as association with a person or group of persons with one or more of these actual or perceived characteristics; however, prohibited conduct need not be based on any particular characteristic defined in this paragraph or chapter 363A.”

    As should be clear from the text in the bill itself, it does indeed protect all children equally. But, Kersten’s intent, so it seems, was to perpetuate the pernicious myth that the bill was only concerned with protecting youth with same sex attraction. It’s hard to avoid the conclusion that Kersten was lying, blowing a dog whistle in her column to arouse the fear, hatred and resentment of religious conservatives and fundamentalists.

    She’s not the only one trying to stir up irrational passions. If you spend even a modicum of time surfing conservative websites for editorials and news items about LGBTQ people, you don’t have to go far to find things like the following.

    —Religious Right Panelists: Gay Rights Activists are Christ-Hating Fascists

    —Remember Herman Cain, one of the Republican candidates for President in 2012? Well, the editor of his website said about gays and lesbians:

    “This movement is evil,” Calabrese writes. “The gay movement understands something. They understand that in order for their movement to ultimately succeed, they need to turn the entire culture into a mindless army of obedient adherents like the Borg on Star Trek.”

    —“Conservative talk show host Steve Deace writes in the Washington Times today that gay rights advocates are trying to instill a 1984-style “fascism,” and blames this development on the Supreme Court’s decision to strike down sodomy laws in Lawrence v. Texas.

    —Fox News’ Todd Starnes blames same sex marriage for single parent families:

    —Conservative Indiana pastor and BarbWire editor Jeff Allen, who has compared gays to Al Qaeda, Nazis and the KKK, is convinced that gays are a new Nazi force in America who want to kill Christians:

    “When you understand what the real agenda of the homosexual movement was in the 30s and 40s and you see it is happening now here in the United States of America. I’m telling you, this is not an exaggeration. If it’s not stopped, it will end up in America just like it was in Germany but it won’t be the Jews that will be slaughtered, it will be the Christians.”

    “They are Nazi thought police and they’re going to be the worst kind of tyrants we’ve ever seen. The nightmare is only starting and if the Christians don’t get their act together, this is going to become a hellacious place to live and you’re going to have to go underground to be a Christian in this country. They’re going to hunt you down and they’re going to persecute you. That is the spirit that is alive in this country right now and is being embraced by political leaders in both parties, it is the new Nazism.”

    —“BarbWire’s [a religious conservative website] Gina Miller thinks gay rights advocates are leading a Satanic movement from Hell that is bent on murdering Christians, but she insists that she doesn’t have a bigoted bone in her body when it comes to gay people.”

    There’s much more than this out there.

    So, what explains Republican opposition to this bill? Aside from somewhat trivial concerns about cost, the primary reason might very well be that the MN GOP is steeped in the same toxic, paranoid, semi-literate and unreflective swill as the above comments. Certainly, the fact that this bill was characterized as “fascism” by one GOP lightweight, only provides further evidence that evidence and rational thought are not what drove opposition to this anti-bullying legislation.

    Alas, I doubt we’ve heard the end of right-wing opposition. Watch for it this fall. Fear and ignorance-driven resentment over the bill will be kept alive for the elections. The myth of “Christian persecution” just got a new shot in the arm, and Republican legislators will be milking it to the max.

  4. Submitted by Scott Nelson on 04/10/2014 - 04:33 pm.

    kid-like behavior

    I was bullied — and many others by the same group of kids from Chaska High School; starting in 5th grade until 9th grade. It was painful physically and mentally. That was 30 years ago. Do I hold resentment for not standing up for myself? YES! It wasn’t until a group of four kids pushed me against the wall and held a syringe to my neck — finally, the school helped protect me.

    No person should be bullied, picked on, hit, or called hurtful names.

  5. Submitted by Greg Kapphahn on 04/10/2014 - 05:21 pm.

    Isn’t It Ironic

    That a great deal of what our “conservative” friends claim to fear in regards to this bullying bill,…

    i.e. the mistreatment of their own school-aged kids by other kids because their “conservative” views are viewed by those other students as outside the mainstream,…

    would actually qualify as bullying under this statute.

    In other words, “conservative” kids are far more likely to be protected by this bill than victimized by it.

    Now if those same “conservative” kids have made a habit out of expressing their insecurity about the ideas with which they’ve been raised by harassing or physically attacking other kids who appear to be thinking, acting, or existing in ways which disagree with those ideas,…

    that’s another matter entirely.

    (And I can only hope that my own state Rep., Mary Franson, will someday educate herself as to the ACTUAL meaning of the word “fascism,” which she seems to have confused with any number of forms of dictatorial government, none of which fit this bullying bill, either. Of course Ms. Franson would be perfectly fine with a dictatorial government, as long as it was forcing her fellow citizens to live by her own ideas and ideals.)

    • Submitted by John Appelen on 04/11/2014 - 11:34 pm.

      Dictatorial Government

      Most people do like it when the government passes laws that align with their own personal beliefs, and forces others to comply with them. I don’t think the GOP or Mary has a monopoly on this.

      The comments above indicate that people here are supportive of a law that dictates beliefs at a state level that are aligned with their own, rather than leaving those decisions to the local school boards and administrators.

      Beauty must be in the eye of the beholder.

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