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New Minnesota Anti-Bullying Law Follows Years of Debate, Controversy

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Minnesota Gov. Mark Dayton (D) signed the state's Safe and Supportive Schools Act into law this week after more than two years of public debate and nearly 12 hours of discussion in the statehouse on Tuesday about the policy, which is designed to protect students from bullying in school.

States around the country have faced similar challenges. While most sane adults wouldn't wish bullying on a child, interest groups and professional organizations have responded to state policies with concerns about local control, strained district resources, and concern about freedom of speech—particularly when schools are required to intervene in cyberbullying carried out on a home computer.

The new Minnesota law, effective in the 2014-15 school year, includes off-campus electronic posts in school-related bullying if they "substantially and materially disrupt student learning or the school environment." It requires local districts to adopt a multi-pronged bullying policy. If they do not do so, a model state policy will go into effect. It requires schools to designate a person to investigate and track bullying reports, which may be made anonymously, and it creates a School Safety Technical Assistance Center at the Minnesota Department of Education to help collect data and best practices for combatting bullying.

The measure "provides local school districts the guidance, support, and flexibility to adopt clear and enforceable school policies to help protect all children from bullying, and to reinforce the principles of tolerance and respect in our schools," Dayton's office said in a blog post. The new law replaces a much shorter policy, which was considered one of the weakest in the country, the Minneapolis Star-Tribune reported.

But opponents to the measure said it diminishes local control (the eight-page law includes more than a page of requirements for local discipline policies), and rural districts argued that many problems addressed in the law are of a greater concern at the state's larger districts. And some social conservatives bristled at language included in the bullying definition that calls for the protection of students regardless of sexual orientation, "including gender identity and expression."

So, will the new policy bring change in schools, many of which already have local-level initiatives in place? Will opponents see value in the law?The devil's in the implementation, it seems.

It's not surprising that bullying has increasingly found its way from school board meetings to state legislative sessions in the past decade. As schools are increasingly acknowledging the social and emotional parts of the student experience that can help or hinder learning, bullying has become a marquee issue. And, taking a step back from the emotional elements, schools that are perceived as neglecting bullying in their hallways have become the target of lawsuits by fed-up parents and students.

The Anoka-Hennepin School District, Minnesota's largest, settled in 2012 a lawsuit brought by six former and current students, who said the district "did not adequately respond to persistent physical and verbal harassment based on real or perceived sexual orientation," the Star-Tribune reported. That lawsuit led to a federal civil rights investigation. The settlement included a $270,000 lump sum payment to the plaintiffs, an agreement to rework district policies and practices, and a partnership with the U.S. departments of education and justice.

Want to find the most recent information about documented reports of bullying in your state or local district? Look it up in the newest Civil Rights Data Collection. Here's Anoka-Hennepin's report.

 Photo: Governor Mark Dayton signs the Safe and Supportive Schools Act. (Minnesota Governor's Office Photo)

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