Although the Legislature will not convene again until Feb. 25, we’re beginning to hear about some of the top priorities that the Democratic leadership plans to put forward for the legislative session. Among the top items on their agenda is a so-called “anti-bullying” bill. While it may be well-intentioned, a “one-size-fits-all” solution from legislators and bureaucrats from St. Paul will not solve the bullying problems we have in our schools.
No student should be bullied for any reason. As a mom of four boys — one of whom is disabled — I’ve certainly had my fair share of children coming home distraught after a day of school when other kids have been mean. I’ve seen the pain that comes with such malicious behavior. When bullying occurs, the circumstances are unique to the students involved. Those who are best equipped — teachers and school administrators — need to be empowered to be able to deal with it immediately and directly.
Unfortunately, the proposal being pushed by some Democratic legislators circumvents the independent and local authority of school districts and instead imposes up to a $50 million unfunded mandate upon our school districts. This forces the local schools to be on the hook financially as they implement the directives of the bill and report to a bureaucratic “climate center” run by the state on incidents of bullying — even if the current policies they have in place have been working effectively. The proposal goes so far as to authorize the commissioner of the Department of Education to deny funding to any schools should she determine that the school’s policy does not comply with the statute.
Furthermore, the application of what defines “bullying” isn’t clear. With students raised in different cultures and faiths, what may be an honest expression of a belief shared by a student based on family upbringing may be considered offensive enough to constitute bullying to another. Yet, with no requirement that parents be notified if their child is accused of bullying, what recourse do parents and students have? Education requires the free exchange of ideas without fear of persecution. Parents should not be sidelined in that process.
Even the most well-behaved kids can have moments of bad behavior as they go through adolescence. While the poor conduct should not go unaddressed, this legislation goes a step too far. It permits incident reports of bullying to be kept at the schools in a database accessible at the state level. Remarkably, the legislation contains no requirement that a parent be notified that such a record about their child is being kept. This means that one foolish or insensitive comment a sixth-grader makes could follow him throughout his entire school career and impact his ability to get into college or receive a scholarship, while moms and dads are kept in the dark.
While those pushing the bill have claimed to have local support for their initiative, why not let the schools simply keep the policies they have and allow them to make policy modifications as needed? Why force everyone to adopt one state model, especially if a school’s current policy is working? Because of these concerns, as well as increased costs to school districts, the Minnesota School Boards Association, a nonpartisan organization of school board members across Minnesota, has come out against this proposal.
School should be a place where students feel safe and comfortable to learn without fear of intimidation or harassment. As parents, it’s heartbreaking to have a tearful child come home from school overwhelmed and embarrassed to return to school the next day because of the taunting of others. But it is also wrong to bully a child into silence or violation of his or her own conscience in the name of an “anti-bullying” policy. Yet, we know that a statewide policy to attempt to address bullying enacted from St. Paul is no match for the hardworking teachers, administrators, school board members — not to mention parents — who care so deeply about our kids.
Kathy Lohmer, (R-Stillwater) represents District 39B in the Minnesota House of Representatives.