2014 session : Safe Schools wins approval, session nearing May end

Self-advocates and organizations for people with disabilities are still monitoring dozens of issues as the 2014 Minnesota Legislature enters its […]

Self-advocates and organizations for people with disabilities are still monitoring dozens of issues as the 2014 Minnesota Legislature enters its final weeks. Many issues are still in play as state lawmakers approach a May 19 adjournment date.

Numerous proposals were still unresolved as Access Press went to press, including additional funding for state academics, jobs funding, action on parental fees, potential Medical Assistance-Employed People with Disabilities program changes and changes that could affect the assets people with disabilities can have.

Photo courtesy of Jane McClure

Photo courtesy of Jane McClure

One high-profile issue that is moving ahead is the Safe and Supportive Schools Act. The anti-bullying legislation was a flashpoint during the 2013 session, with debate including a long and contentious floor session. The bill was tabled in the final hours of session last year, as Republicans threatened a lengthy filibuster to block the bill.

Advocates contend Minnesota’s existing anti-bullying law is one of the weakest in the nation. Many disability organizations and self-advocates lined up to speak for the proposed legislation, saying it would provide badly needed protections. Students with disabilities are among those who would be protected. Opponents contend the bill would be too costly. Estimated costs to implement the bill are at $19 million.

On April 3 the bill passed the Senate 36-31. The Senate added more than a dozen amendments. The bill provides a clearer definition of bullying, allows individual school districts and schools to develop their own anti-bullying policies and requires training for school staff.

Although the House passed the measure last session there were enough changes that it needs to go back to the floor for another debate and vote. Then it would go to Gov. Mark Dayton for his signature. Dayton has said he will sign the bill into law.

Another high-profile effort has been the push to legalize medical marijuana. In early April, Dayton was given a petition with more than 5,000 names, asking that he reconsider his stance on the issue. Dayton has sided with law enforcement against the legalization of medical marijuana. People with a number of medical conditions contend that the issue is one of life and death, and should not be politicized.

Dayton has said he’d like a study of the use of medical marijuana for ill children, but proponents contend that they don’t have time to wait for a study.

Many other issues are still in play. One bill that various disability rights advocates are following would affect students who transfer high schools and how eligibility is determined. If it is passed this session, it is likely to be included in an omnibus bill as it has no companion Senate bill.

Rep. Bob Dettmer (R-Forest Lake) is a teacher and coach who wants to change current Minnesota State High School League rules. Dettmer brought changes forward to help constituents whose son has disabilities.

Transfer students are generally ineligible for varsity competition for one year beginning from the first date of attendance at the new school, unless the student’s parents move from one public school district attendance area to another area. Dettmer wants the league to adopt new rules, so that any student with a disability would be immediately eligible to compete. The disability would be defined by the student having an individualized education program or 504 plan that transfers from one public school to another.

The league and some schools have worried that the transfer law could be abused, as students switch schools for competitive purposes. But others have said the law change would provide needed clarity and would help students transfer schools while not losing the ability to play a sport. Several disability groups have lined up to support the proposed change.

Transportation issues are also being watched. One concern raised recently in the House is how new light rail transit vehicles are being designed. The vehicles are more difficult for passengers in wheelchairs or scooters to use, with designated areas and companion seating being replaced by fold-down seats. The fold-down seats are often taken by other passengers. Margot Imdieke Cross, an accessibility specialist with the Minnesota State Council on Disability, has been among those presenting testimony about the change.

Rep. Sandra Masin (DFL-Eagan) has sponsored legislation that would require new design standards for future light rail transit vehicles on the Blue Line and soon-to-open Green Line rail services. Dedicated wheelchair space and companion seating would be required on each train car. Metro Transit is in support of the change.

Another transportation issue moving ahead would expand eligibility for disability vehicle license plates. The bill, also sponsored by Masin, would allow the parents or legal guardians of people with disabilities to qualify for permits. It woul also require new language on disability parking space signs. The signs would tell drivers to clearly display disability parking authorization and to park in the center of the space. The bill would require that this information, which is already included in state law, to be added to parking signs.