Leaders in the Anoka-Hennepin School District have mixed feelings about the anti-bullying legislation under consideration at the capital.
The controversial Safe and Supportive Minnesota Schools Act has cleared state Senate education and finance committees. Now, it moves to the Senate floor for a vote.
The anti-bullying bill is a priority for Democrats this legislative session. It was sidelined last year when Republican senators threatened a filibuster.
The bill was heard by the education committee March 11 and the finance committee March 19. It cleared both with majority support.
“I don’t know of a single Republican vote for it yet,” Sen. Branden Petersen, R-Andover, said.
Many have taken issue with language that specifies protected characteristics, including sexual orientation and gender identity and expression.
Not Superintendent Dennis Carlson. “Law prescribes protected classes,” he said. “Our concern is for all kids.”
Students’ actual or perceived physical appearance, race, religion, sex and more are also included on the list of characteristics that “intimidating, threatening, abusive or harassing conduct may involve.” The policy clearly states that bullying “may involve, but is not limited to” the list of 19 characteristics.
“It’s comprehensive; it tries to protect,” said Sen. Alice Johnson, DFL-Spring Lake Park, who sits on the education committee. “There are so many kids that have been bullied for various reasons. I think everyone knows that something needs to be done.”
For Petersen, also on the education committee, it isn’t the bill’s content that’s the trouble, necessarily. “I’m opposed to the notion that it’s the state’s responsibility to come up with a one-size fits all bullying policy,” he said. “We have elected school boards for a reason.”
Republican senators announced a rival bill this month, which is modeled after legislation in North Dakota. It did not gain traction.
Carlson did not support the Safe and Supportive Schools Act before changes were introduced in the education committee.
Initially, all school volunteers – even if they volunteered only once to chaperone a child’s field trip or sell concessions – needed to undergo training on bullying, the bill stated.
“That seemed overly prescriptive,” Carlson said.
Anoka-Hennepin had more than 11,100 active volunteers last year. Training each and every one of them would have required an exorbitant amount of time and money, Carlson said. “It really would put a terrible burden on the school district.”
Additionally, Carlson was wary of the prescribed time limit districts had to complete bullying investigations in previous drafts of the bill: within three days of receiving an incident report. The language was amended to require that districts initiate an investigation within three days of receiving a report.
A clause that might have kept parents in the dark about their children’s behavior at school was also removed before the education committee forwarded the legislation.
“The major things that we had concerns about were all taken care of,” Carlson said.
But Anoka-Hennepin School Board Chairman Tom Heidemann said the board, like the Minnesota School Boards Association, continues to oppose the measure.
“We really don’t support it because it is an unfunded mandate,” he said.
Fiscal notes from Minnesota Management & Budget have the legislation costing the state nearly $1 million annually. Costs to individual school districts are unspecified, but estimates have been as high as $20 million statewide.
In the finance committee, an amendment struck a portion of the bill that gave the education commissioner the ability to withhold funding if a district was not in compliance with the act.
If the bill passes the Senate, it will go back to the House so representatives can approve the Senate’s changes or send the bill to committee.
If the Safe and Supportive Schools Act makes it out of the House, it would take effect next school year.
Anoka-Hennepin will have very little work to do, Carlson said. “We are in full compliance with the new law.”
Olivia Koester is at firstname.lastname@example.org