Safe Schools bill makes another run at passage

Hunter Sargent showed off the shirt he designed with an anti-bullying message.

At 37 words, Minnesota currently has the shortest bullying prevention law in the United States. While many disability advocacy groups are among the 120 groups calling for changes, their efforts are running into resistance from some lawmakers and educators, who say the changes would be too complicated and costly to implement.

Last year the Minnesota House passed the Safe and Supportive Minnesota Schools Act, but it stalled on the Senate floor due to threat of a filibuster. Hundreds flocked to the capitol March 3 to support the act’s passage this session, with powerful stories of how bullying has affected their lives. Some students have switched schools because of bullying. A 2013 study published in the Journal of the American Medical Association found that those who were bullies and/or victims of bullying in childhood were more likely to experience psychiatric problems as adults ten years later, such as anxiety, depression, substance abuse, and suicide, when compared to those who never experienced bullying.

The 2014 Safe and Supportive Minnesota Schools Act is 20 pages long. It would require training and education for school personnel and students on strategies for addressing and preventing bullying and for reporting incidents of bullying. The proposed law would clearly defines bullying, would require schools to collect data on bullying and report that data to the estate, and would provide state assistance to schools to implement the law. When appropriate, it would establish a procedure for addressing bullying in students’ Individualized Education Programs (IEPs) or 504 Plan.

But the bill has faced opposition due to implementation costs, which critics say could run from $5 million to $25 million statewide. Other groups, including faith-based and private school groups, believe reporting requirements could invade student privacy. Another objection is that the bill would tell private schools how to handle discipline and that it provides specific protections based on gender issues. Free speech issues have also been raised.

PACER Center and The Arc Minnesota are among the disability advocacy groups supporting the Safe Schools Act. Paula Goldberg, executive director at PACER Center and Julie Hertzog, director, PACER’s

National Bullying Prevention Center, released a statement after the rally noting that every year 13 million American children are bullied. “That’s almost one in every three students and it’s likely affecting someone you know and care about,” they stated.

One self-advocate supporting the bill is Hunter Sargent, a Plymouth man with fetal alcohol spectrum disorder. He knows first-hand the harm that bullying can cause and its lingering effects. As a student, he was repeatedly bullied by those who targeted him because of his disability. One bully beat him repeatedly and once, badly bloodied his nose. When a doctor told Sargent years later that he had suffered a broken nose previously, he was convinced that the bully had caused the injury.

Sargent is now committed to ensuring that students today don’t go through what he did. He not only testifies on behalf of the bill, he has written and performed a rap song about his experiences and the need to end bullying. He and his wife Hollynd have also produced t-shirts with an anti-bullying message that reflects his Native American heritage.

PACER officials contend that bullying should not be seen as a rite of passage or acceptable behavior. PACER is sharing the story of a Minnesota child with disabilities, whose family had to ask PACER for help to stop bullying at her school. “Put yourself in the shoes of one particular student with disabilities, a child two to three times more likely to be a target of bullying than her peers. For weeks on end she had suffered physical and emotional harm. Her hair had been pulled, she had been kicked, punched, and called every imaginable name. She had fled the school bus in fear and often stayed home altogether. The girl’s parents met with school administrators more than once and nothing was done. The principal’s advice:

“Just ignore it and it will stop. But simply ignoring behavior does not make it stop,” Hertzog and Goldberg said.