Passing an anti-bullying measure in Minnesota wasn’t easy.
In 2009, a bill did make it through the Legislature, only to be vetoed by Gov. Tim Pawlenty.
Last year, an anti-bullying bill was passed in the House but died on the floor of the Senate in the final hours of the session.
And Thursday, Republican senators did everything they could to at least slow down passage of the bill. For five hours, Republicans tossed amendment after amendment at the bill. The vast majority of those amendments failed on party-line votes.
Finally, though, the bill, which had gone through 11 legislative committees, came to the floor and was passed on a 36-31 vote. No Republicans supported the bill.
Because this essentially was the bill passed by the House last session, it will be returned to the House. which is expected to quickly pass the bill and move it on to the governor, who has said he’ll sign it.
The political process that Sen. Scott Dibble described as “a long journey” is nearly over. Dibble, point person on this issue, has taken every step of the journey.
There were a few surprises on this day.
The biggest surprise was that despite a dramatic call to action by organizations opposing the bill, few foes showed up at the Capitol.
“A lot of us conservatives work,” said Linda Stanton, one of the few foes of the bill standing outside the chamber.
Stanton admitted that she was disappointed that after such a long battle, so few foes could had come to St. Paul for a last stand.
“Maybe it’s fatigue,” she said. “Maybe a lot of people stayed home to pray.”
That comment about prayer represented an undercurrent of this debate. Perhaps because the bill had been pushed by, among others, LBGT groups, there is some sense among fundamentalist Christians that the bill will be used to push LBGT values down the throats of the children of the fundamentalists.
“If a child gets reported for bullying,” Stanton said, “he could be remediated with values the parents don’t agree with.”
Indeed, what makes this bill unique is its focus on school districts coming up with a “remedial response to correct prohibited conduct.”
Throughout the day, Dibble attempted to calm Republicans.
“This bill is focused on changing behaviors,” he said. “….Preventing bullying in the first place is the most important portion of this bill….No new rights are being created in this bill. This is a solid, mainstream bill.”
Future campaign issue
But Republican senators were having no part of such talk. Opposition to the bill is clearly going to be a part of the GOP campaigns next fall.
What’s wrong with the bill?
It seemed that every Republican senator had a laundry list of problems.
Some of their issues were surprising. For example, Sen. Dave Senjem of Rochester is concerned that the bullying measure will be used to stop football players from tackling hard, or hockey players from checking or volleyball players from spiking.
Most of the concerns were more conventional. Too much bureaucracy, too much money, not enough parental involvement.
Though parents — and parental training — are part of the bill, some GOP senators seem to believe school officials should immediately call parents if there are hints of bullying issues surrounding their children.
“Who has the authority of these children?” asked Sen. Dan Hall, R-Lakeville. “The parents should ALWAYS know. . . .This bill is saying it’s not the parents in charge now, we (legislators) are in charge.”
Hall wasn’t buying the idea that in cases of older kids, it’s not always such a good idea to make a first call to parents.
Other GOP senators, such as Eric Pratt, R-Lakeville, seemed concerned that kids involved on either side of the bullying line might get hooked up with “social workers….I’m concerned about social workers.”
The problem with social workers is that they are a part of government and this bill is laced with government intrusion, according to the Republicans.
The bullying issue should be dealt with by local school boards and local school administrators instead of “bureaucrats in St. Paul.”
“In this bill, it’s implicit that you don’t trust local administrators or parents or schools,” said Sen. Paul Gazelka, R-Nisswa. “The greatest problem with this bill is our arrogance….”
Every once in awhile, a DFLer would offer a sobering thought; a reminder of why the bill was on the floor in the first place.
For example, late in the afternoon, Sen. Alice Johnson, a DFLer from Spring Lake Park, rose briefly and cited a few statistics.
“Studies show that one in seven children a year say they are bullied,” she said. “That’s 100,000 children a year. Bullied. It’s time for us to act.”
At a few other points, DFLers noted that bullied kids have committed suicide.
The DFLers in the House and Senate are not alone in support of this bill, which Republicans say is an unfunded mandate that will cost school districts $19 million annually.
The Minnesota Elementary School Principals Association, the Minnesota Association of Secondary School Principals, Association of Metropolitan School Districts, Minnesota Association of School Administrators, Minnesota PTA, the American Academy of Pediatrics, Minnesota Social Workers Association, Minneapolis Public Schools and Education Minnesota were among a long list of organizations supporting the bill.
And in the hallway, outside the Senate chamber, there were a few dozen mostly young people who waited and waited and finally cheered when the vote was tallied.
Among those who had come to the capitol to support the bill was Kyrstin Schuette, who graduated from an online high school in 2011 after she felt totally isolated in the halls of Anoka High School after being outed.
Schuette was among six students involved in a federal lawsuit against the Anoka-Hennepin School District, claiming that the district was failing to provide a safe environment for LGBT students. The students won the suit.
Schuette said she was at the Capitol a year ago when legalization of gay marriage was passed. On that day, the Capitol was packed, mostly with supporters.
Thursday, there were only a few people. But a small turnout doesn’t diminish the importance of the event, Schuette said.
“I feel like in many ways this is a bigger issue,” Schuette said. “If students can’t go to school and be safe, there’s something very wrong. This is a big day.”