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Three women stand in front of the Minnesota Senate chamber Thursday, March 3, 2014, holding signs supporting an anti-bullying bill being debated inside. FORUM NEWS SERVICE/Don Davis
Three women stand in front of the Minnesota Senate chamber Thursday, March 3, 2014, holding signs supporting an anti-bullying bill being debated inside. FORUM NEWS SERVICE/Don Davis

Minnesota Senate approves school anti-bullying bill

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Detroit Lakes Minnesota 511 Washington Avenue 56501

ST. PAUL -- After considering 15 amendments and more than five hours of debate Thursday, state senators approved a bill to strengthen bullying prevention in Minnesota schools.

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The Safe and Supportive Minnesota Schools Act aims to require school districts to better train teachers and staff on bullying prevention. It also would require districts to investigate bullying cases and track them.

The bill passed on a 36-31 vote, mostly along party lines. The measure greatly expands a Minnesota anti-bullying law that is now just 37 words.

Three Democrats voted against the bill: Rep. Lyle Koenen of Clara City, LeRoy Stumpf of Plummer and Dan Sparks of Austin.

It was a hard-fought victory, said state Sen. Scott Dibble, DFL-Minneapolis, the bill’s primary sponsor.

“I’m very, very happy right now,” Dibble said after the vote. “It’s been a long road. It has been a decade in the making trying to convince people that this problem is real.”

The bill still must clear another hurdle. House members, who approved the bill last year, must agree with changes made in the Senate before it can be sent to Gov. Mark Dayton for his signature.

Members of the Democratic-Farmer-Labor Party and their supporters have said passing bullying prevention legislation was a top priority for this legislative session.

Republican lawmakers are just as united against it. They say the bill takes away school leaders’ local control, is too costly to implement and gives special protection to certain students. Implementing the legislation statewide is estimated at $20 million.

“We change the nature of school districts forever in this state,” state Sen. David Hann, R-Eden Prairie, the minority leader, said of the bill. “We are sending them a message that they can’t be trusted.”

During Thursday’s floor session, GOP senators continued their efforts to amend the law and won support for minor changes, but were unable to further alter the measure.

State Rep. Carla Nelson, R-Rochester, again tried to replace Dibble’s bill with the GOP alternative “Stamp Out Bullying Act,” but it was voted down. Nelson said the alternative is less costly and doesn’t intrude on local control, but Dibble doesn’t believe it goes far enough to ensure every student is protected.

The alternative leaves out a piece that Dibble says is a key part of his proposed law -- specifying that students cannot be bullied for their sexual orientation or gender identity.

Opponents argue that gives special protection to certain students, but supporters say specificity is necessary to ensure that all students are protected.

Efforts to mandate parent notification when students are involved in a bullying incident also were defeated. Language in the bill allows school administrators to use their discretion when notifying parents.

“I am painfully disappointed at our failure today to recognize the work parents do to keep children safe,” said state Sen. Michelle Benson, R-Ham Lake.

Republicans have won changes to the measure since the legislation was tabled in May. Members of the Finance Committee agreed to remove a provision that would allow the state education commissioner to withhold funds from schools that don’t comply with the law.

Dibble also made changes to the bill to ease the concerns of school administrators over how bullying is defined and which staff members will be required to have anti-bullying training.

Dibble wasn’t supportive of all the changes made to the bill, but he said the law that emerged from the Senate was still a good one.

Much of the bullying debate centered on whether the state should insert itself into what could be considered a local school decision or whether the state needs to prevent bullying.

"We come up with a one-size-fits-all-philosophy, which doesn't work," Sen. Bill Weber, R-Luverne, said, adding that such policies should be left to local districts.

However, he added: "We cannot accept for any reason the bullying of our students."

Sen. Susan Kent, D-Woodbury, said the state needs to protect all students, and the bill does that.

"Think about it: Kids are bullied because they’re deemed 'too smart,' because they’re deemed 'not as smart,' because their hair is curly, because their shoes are blue," Kent said. "The bill explicitly states several times that it protects all students, and just because it lists certain types of students does not mean that only those students are protected."

Students again packed into the Capitol to see the Senate vote on the bill. Tickets were required for a seat in the Senate gallery.

Kyrstin Schuette was one student on hand for the vote. Schuette was a student in the Anoka-Hennepin School District when it was subject to a lawsuit over its policies on bullying.

“It’s amazing. It’s overwhelming and it’s been a long time coming,” Schuette said after the Senate vote. “There have been long days and sleepless nights.”

Dibble said he was most impressed by the dedicated backing the bill received from students.

“They are inspiring,” Dibble said. “It’s one of the honors of my legislative career.”

Don Davis of Forum News Service, a media partner with the Pioneer Press, contributed to this report.

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