Column: A better law on bullying is needed

Bullying in schools is real and it needs to be addressed.

Don Heinzman
Don Heinzma

There’s a bill in the Legislature that would define bullying and prescribe how school administrators should respond to a bullying complaint. Critics say the state should get out of solving bullying problems, while proponents say the present 37-word bill doesn’t go far enough in giving directions on how to lessen the problem.

Gov. Mark Dayton, when asked his view, skirted what kind of anti-bullying bill he’d sign, but acknowledged he prefers that it be handled at the local level using common sense as the guide.

The fact is that students in the country are being bullied more than we imagined, according to research. Added to the problem is cyberbullying, where kids can be bullied online by accusers, who sometimes remain anonymous. What’s more serious, a study shows that students who are victims of bullying are twice as likely to commit suicide.

House author of the bill Sen. Scott Dibble says thousands of students in Minnesota stay at home because of the way they are treated in school.

One basic question the Legislature needs to decide is what exactly is bullying? How does it differ from harassment and teasing?

And then what should be done about it?

Many years ago, parents told their kids to shrug it off and just fight back. That was easier said than done.

The Minnesota story on bullying began in a school district where a parent of a son, who committed suicide allegedly because he was taunted, complained to school authorities. She claimed the school didn’t act fast enough on her complaints about bullying.

Eventually the issue grew over concern that the school culture failed to address bullying of students with different genders, different sexual orientation and ethnic origins.

The concern reached the halls of the Legislature, where a weak statement was enacted. The law is said to be one of the weakest of states in the country.

Now the Legislature is attempting to define bullying that it is not just teasing in school halls.

After some changes, the definition is a pattern of intimidating, threatening, abusive or harming conduct. It can’t be just one incident; it has to be repeated. The bullying must substantially interfere with the student’s opportunity to learn and receive services and privileges from the school.

The bill has been amended with some of the provisions removed, including that the state commissioner of education cannot withhold state aid from schools that fail to follow the new bullying law. School employees, volunteers and new staff must undergo bullying training, just as they do for other challenging behaviors.

There are times when people prefer the government stay out of the local school district’s business. This is not one of those times, and a more defined law is needed.

It is needed to protect all students – PERIOD.

Don Heinzman is a columnist for ECM Publishers.