School advocates say anti-bullying laws needed, Emmer says no

The suicides of three gay students in the state's largest school district over the past year has brought a new sense of urgency to advocates seeking stronger anti-bullying measures. Among Minnesota's three major-party gubernatorial candidates, only one says as governor he won't sign anti-bullying legislation should it reach his desk. 

Tom Emmer, the GOP's endorsed candidate, told audience members at a Minnesota State Fair debate that he would not sign the Safe Schools for All bill - the same measure Gov. Tim Pawlenty vetoed in 2009. Advocates say it could help improve the climate in public school hallways and possibly prevent that bullying that, at times, can lead students to take their own lives. The bill would mandate trainings for teachers and administrators, but has been met with opposition by social conservatives because those workshops would include factors like sexual orientation along with gender, race, religion and disability.

The Anoka-Hennepin School District has seen seven suicides in the last year, three by gay teens. And those deaths are being attributed - at least by LGBT advocates - as a product of intolerance and bullying in the district. While the district has beefed up programs aimed at preventing bullying and suicide, advocates say school policy that bans discussion of LGBT issues hampers those efforts.

An audience member at the state fair debate asked the candidates if they would sign the Safe Schools for All bill if elected and if the bill made it to their desk (as it did for Pawlenty in 2009).

Independence Party candidate Tom Horner said, "It's a simple question that deserves a simple answer: Yes."

DFLer Mark Dayton recalled a story a decade ago in Rochester when a Somali student was beaten by a group of students because of his country of origin - a factor currently not included in Minnesota anti-bullying laws - and that the city came together to address bullying head on. He said he would sign the Safe Schools bill.

"We need to just make it clear," he said: "Not in our schools. Not in our cities. Not in our state."

Emmer took a different tack in his response. "I would have to see what it looks like," he said, generating a round of boos from the audience.

"I'll tell you right now, bullying is a serious issue," he acknowledged. "You're talking to the parent of seven kids - Jacquie and I have seven kids - we're very, we're very aware of what happens when a child is faced with an uncomfortable situation at school or out in a public place. But tell you what, it's up to the parents, Jacquie and I, to educate our children, how they handle that situation. We're the ones who have to be the front line of defense for our children. I don't want the government doing that for us."

But advocates who work on anti-bullying issues say that officially referencing sexual orientation, disability and national origin could prevent bullying and even the suicides that may result from it.

"Anoka-Hennepin has taken some dramatic measures recently that brings them much closer to what Safe Schools requires, but the legislation would close many of the remaining gaps and would provide codified assurance that those measures would be permanent, as well," said Peter Gokey, a member of the Gay Equity Team (GET) that formed last year following anti-gay harassment by two district teachers.

Tom Emmer voted against the 2009 anti-bullying legislation and says he'll veto it if it comes to his desk as governor.

Safe Schools would have given some consistency to the policies followed by many Minnesota school districts and made those reflect state anti-discrimination law, says Phil Duran of OutFront Minnesota, a LGBT advocacy group that worked on the 2009 version of the bill.

"It would have brought Minnesota's statute requiring schools to have anti-violence and harassment policies into line with the Minnesota Human Rights Act, by expanding beyond the categories of race, gender, and religion identified in the former to include categories in the latter, such as sexual orientation - which, in Minnesota, includes gender identity- and disability or national origin."

But Gokey says such policies improve the educational climate for all students, not just gay and lesbian ones. "Part of the bill's mandates would be staff training to ensure cultural competency so that not only is there is an appropriate response to bullying but embeds a more proactive approach to eliminate the culture that produces bullying in the first place," he said.

Duran agreed that such a bill is one tool to help reduce the incidence of bullying and give the community some guidelines on how to address it. "Whether a policy can ultimately deter a bully who is determined to harass or assault another student, of course, is unpredictable, but declining to address the behavior will often be seen as a tacit endorsement of it," he said. "A useful policy, combined with education of all who are connected to the school community, can help promote an environment in which that sort of conduct is effectively discouraged."

He added, "Frankly, it also would help districts deflect lawsuits by harassed students or their families."

In 2009, Anoka-Hennepin settled with a student after the Minnesota Department of Human Rights found evidence that two teachers conspired to harass a student they thought was gay. He wasn't, but it cost the district $25,000, not an insignificant sum considering the declining revenues in many districts.

The Minnesota Family Council made a heavy lobbying push in 2009 to ask legislators to reject the bill because it would "promote acceptance of homosexuality" (The Family Council is backing Tom Emmer for governor this year). Emmer was among those voting against the Safe Schools bill in 2009.

OutFront Action, OutFront Minnesota's political action committee, says Emmer is wrong on the issue. "Candidate Emmer's opposition to anti-bullying legislation is an example of how extreme his views are and how out of step he is from what Minnesotans need in our next governor," said Monica Meyer the group's director. She said the group has endorsed Dayton "because he has been an outspoken advocate for addressing intolerance and creating safe communities."

Sexual orientation is one of fourteen characteristics that are covered by the bill, which also includes race, color, creed, religion, national origin, sex, marital status, disability, socioeconomic status, sexual orientation, gender identity or expression, age, physical characteristics, or "association with a person or group with one or more of these actual or perceived characteristics."

"There is nothing currently that requires school districts to have anti-harassment/violence policies that address these characteristics, though many do, voluntarily," Duran said. Having such a policy sends a message to students, parents, and others that such conduct is unacceptable, and provides a basis on which staff and administrators can rely when they respond to that conduct."