How Minnesota got the nation's worst anti-bullying law

Minnesota is ranked dead last among states that have anti-bullying laws on the books according to a study by the U.S. Department of Education. Further, as Gov. Mark Dayton noted last week, Minnesota’s law is also the shortest at just 37 words. Minnesota had an opportunity to enact one of the nation’s strongest in 2009, but it was vetoed by Gov. Tim Pawlenty under pressure from the Minnesota Family Council.

The Department of Education report released on Tuesday found Minnesota’s anti-bullying law among the weakest of the 47 states that have anti-bullying laws.

Minnesota Public Radio’s Bob Collins noted that in 2007, when Minnesota’s anti-bullying laws were passed, the Legislature was more concerned with naming a highway after Walter Mondale:

It was a bad piece of legislation passed by legislators behaving badly by not providing any guidance or definition, even when they were told by people closer to the problem that it was bad legislation that did nothing but allow lawmakers to say they “took action” on bullying.

On the day the Minnesota Senate passed the bill, there was no debate. That day, it spent a considerable amount of time whether to rename a stretch of highway in Duluth after Walter Mondale.

The Minnesota Legislature did pass a very strong anti-bullying law in 2009, but it was vetoed by Gov. Tim Pawlenty.

Pawlenty said the bill was unnecessary because Minnesota has already enacted anti-bullying legislation. He said the bill “duplicates current law relating to school board policies prohibiting bullying, intimidation, violence and pattern of harassment in schools.” He pointed out that Minnesota law already prohibits sexual, religious and racial bullying.

Pawlenty was praising a law the feds have now determined is one of the nation’s weakest.

Pawlenty’s motivation for vetoing the 2009 law was based on opposition from the Minnesota Family Council.

The group, in an email to supporters at the time, said that the bill “gives preferential treatment and status to homosexuals, bisexuals, cross dressers, transvestites and transsexuals – persons who have sex change operations – by singling out sexual orientation and gender identity or expression for special protection. Homosexual activists will use it as ‘leverage’ to promote acceptance and normalization of homosexuality, homosexual marriage and unhealthy sexual behaviors.”

The group lobbied heavily to get the bill defeated.

That bill also covered bullying around 12 other characteristics including disability and economic status in addition to sexual orientation and gender identity, mandated anti-bullying training for all school staff from principals to bus drivers, and directed school districts to establish procedures for reducing bullying.

Those are all components that the U.S. Department of Education evaluated when it found Minnesota’s law inadequate.

“Forty-four state laws include language on scope, which establishes where legislation applies and what conditions must be present for schools to have authority over student conduct,” the report’s authors wrote.

The statement of scope is one of the most common components of state bullying legislation. Idaho and Minnesota are the only two states that do not address scope in any form in their state bullying laws. As shown in Exhibit 7 all bullying laws covering scope apply to student conduct that occurs on school grounds or property, and nearly all apply to school-sponsored functions or events. Eleven laws covering school-sponsored functions extend jurisdiction to any activities, on or off campus, that are school-related, or that are supervised by school personnel, regardless of whether the function is sponsored by the school. More than three-quarters of state legislation also covers student conduct that occurs on buses or other school-owned or leased vehicles.

The report also found Minnesota lacking because while it has an anti-bullying law on the books, it doesn’t actually define bullying.

Three states—Arizona, Minnesota, and Wisconsin—include prohibitions against bullying in their state statutes without specifically defining the behavior that is prohibited. Instead laws place responsibility for developing definitions with the state education agency through the mandatory development of a model bullying policy, or with local school districts through requirements that districts craft their own policies locally. Wisconsin requires districts to adopt their own definitions and to include them in district policies. Arizona state law does not define bullying conduct in any statute, nor does it require that policies at the local level contain definitions in any form.

Ten state laws are less prescriptive, requiring that districts develop and adopt school bullying policies, without specifying policy components. These states may outline responsibilities for districts to respond to school bullying, such as monitoring and reporting incident data, but do not explicitly require expectations to be tied to a bullying policy. Two of these 10 states—Nebraska and Minnesota—set minimum requirements for districts to develop policy documents, but do not set legal requirements for their content, placing full discretion over policy development at the local level. Another of the 10 states—California—requires school districts to adopt policies addressing peer harassment, but does not set similar policy expectations for governing bullying in schools.

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Andy Birkey's picture
Andy Birkey