New anti-bullying bill is an improvement

Minnesota recently introduced a new bill in the state legislature (House File 1953) to strengthen our existing anti-bullying law, which has been touted as one of the worst in the nation. The new bill, largely tailored from the North Dakota School Bullying Law, is a vast improvement over current law, but should also provide a springboard for more discussion within the Governor’s Anti-Bullying Taskforce and the greater community.

The bill ensures that bullying is addressed in multiple settings—at school and sponsored activities as well as on busses. It allows each district to establish its own policy with the involvement of individuals such as parents, students, and school staff. Each school district policy is required to establish:

  • Procedures for reporting and documenting alleged acts of bullying; anonymous reporting procedures must be included.
  • A timeline for schools to follow for investigating reports of alleged bullying.
  • A schedule for keeping documents generated during the investigation of bullying.
  • Disciplinary measures for the “bully.”
  • Strategies to protect the “victim.”
  • Disciplinary measures for anyone making a false report of bullying.

The bill is not just about “intervention.” It also includes a prevention component that requires schools to implement bullying prevention programs for K-12 students.

As with all good policy, though, sometimes the “devil is in the details” and this bill still has some room for discussion around:

  • Adequate Funding to Ensure Success. With budgets tight, it is unclear how schools will be able to successfully implement the requirements. Some states such as New Jersey are already experiencing backlash from passing a strong law without funding.
  • Ensuring A Clear Definition of Bullying. In the current bill, a bullying event is defined as “severe, pervasive, or objectively offensive”—a definition open to a wide range of different interpretations. A great example of a clear definition, is Delaware’s School Bullying Prevention Act passed in 2007. Not only is the definition clear, but it’s linked to the American Medical Association’s three critical elements of bullying—a power imbalance, repeated behavior, and an intention to harm.
  • Understanding the Implications of Immunity for School Districts—This law also relieves the school district and its employees from any liability if the school implemented a bullying policy as required by law and “substantially complied” with that policy. While schools do need to be protected from unwarranted legal actions, it shouldn’t be a mechanism for schools to protect themselves from negligence.

While getting an A++ for strong anti-bullying laws from national organizations is a nice sound-byte, it is time to critically discuss how to ensure that all students are in a safe environment conducive to learning. In the end, the final grade will be what is achieved.