By Don Davis
Gov. Mark Dayton this afternoon plans to sign a bill written to prevent school bullying across Minnesota.
Representatives early today approved a bill 69-63 to require school districts to establish rules against bullying, better train staff on the issue and provide guidance about what must be included in local policies.
The bill representatives debated for nearly 12 hours is based on one they passed last year and was rewritten by senators this year. Gov. Mark Dayton is expected to sign it into law this week.
“It provides students, teachers, parents, administrators a strong set of tools to write their own local school anti-bullying policy,” said Rep. Jim Davnie, D-Minneapolis.
If a school district does not write its own bullying policy, the bill requires the state to impose its own policy on the district.
Democrats had little to say about the bill, but Republicans laid out their opposition.
Rep. Jim Newberger, R-Becker, said Democrats pushing the bill were enacting the “big brother” concept featured in the book “1984.”
“If this isn’t a mirror image of ‘1984,’ I don’t know what is,” Newberger said. “The only problem is (author) George Orwell is off by 30 years.
“If it has a battery, Democrats want access into your private life,” he said, because the bill would allow schools to monitor electronic messages and take action, even if the activity occurs away from school.
Rep. Mary Franson, R-Alexandria, said the bill is “fascist” and is “simply another attack on the Bible and on Christians.”
Davnie responded that the bill would help youths deal with “an increasingly diverse society.”
“The bill deals with behavior, not belief,” he added.
Existing state law devotes 37 words to bullying, which supporters of the bill say makes it the country’s weakest anti-bullying law. With so little state law, school districts have a variety of policies that supporters say should be more standardized.
Longtime teacher Rep. Dean Urdahl, R-Grove City, said that 93 percent of schools have adopted a six-page state school board association anti-bullying policy.
Republicans said local districts know their needs best and should be given freedom to make their own policies. Opponents also say the bill would create an unfunded mandate.
“Those of you who live in rural Minnesota know that this is one of the most hot-button issues this legislative session,” Rep. Dan Fabian, R-Roseau, said, because voters are upset that the state is taking over writing policies that local officials should write.
There is not a bullying problem in rural areas, said Rep. Mark Anderson, R-Lake Shore.
“This is really a rift between rural and metro,” he said. “We are not hearing it out there.”
Davnie, however, said schools still will administer bullying policies. He said they can deal only with activities related to school.
The Safe and Supportive Minnesota Schools Act is a top priority for Democratic-Farmer-Labor legislators and their supporters.
The bill is tied to a proposal that passed a year ago to legalize gay marriages. The measure, supported by many of the same people who backed the marriage proposal, specifies that students cannot be bullied for their sexual orientation or gender identity and several other reasons.
Opponents argue that gives special protection to certain students, but supporters say specificity is necessary to ensure that all students are protected.