Advocates call anti-bullying veto a “lost opportunity”

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Gov. Tim Pawlenty’s veto of an anti-bullying bill on Saturday came as a shock to supporters of the measure who said they had negotiated with the governor’s office to meet his concerns about the legislation.

The bill, which would have directed school districts to provide teachers, staff and administration with training on how to address bullying, passed both the House and Senate with large bipartisan margins and had the backing of a broad coalition of community organizations.

The Safe Schools for All coalition said in a press release Tuesday that they had gotten “word from his staff that the final version had met every request and requirement the Governor had made.”

“By rescinding his compromise and vetoing this widely supported bill, the Governor said he cares more about his political reputation than the safety and education of tens of thousands of Minnesota students he purports to represent,” said Stephanie Hazen of the Family Equality Council.

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.

Despite Pawlenty’s assertion, the bill was different from existing statutes because it contained 14 student characteristics to be included in anti-bullying training — a point made clear by religious right opposition to the bill that was based solely on their inclusion.

The Minnesota Family Council, in an email to supporters, 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.”

It was the inclusion of “sexual orientation and gender identity” that formed the basis of the Family Council’s opposition to the bill, which is not already part of Minnesota statute.

Currently, every school board must develop anti-bullying programs, but schools do not have to include sexual orientation or gender identity as part of the discussion. The bill would have beefed up existing law, not necessarily duplicate it.

The veto came as a disappointment to many. Steve Larson, public policy director for the Arc of Minnesota, an organization that advocates for those with developmental disabilities, said the group was “very disappointed” that Pawlenty vetoed the measure. Students with disabilities were one of the 14 characteristics included in the bill.

“As a result [of the veto] there will not be the specific training on harassment and bullying of individuals with disabilities and we think this will put individuals at increased risk,” he said. “Minnesota has lost an opportunity to improve the school environment for all students. Students with disabilities are susceptible to bullying and harassment, and we were hoping to strengthen all schools’ ability to address these issues.”

Many anti-bullying advocates say they will continue to work with school districts to implement the spirit of the bill. “We will now encourage school districts to implement the intent of the bill on their own,” Larson said. “We hope that something good will come from this despite the fact that the governor vetoed the bill.”

OutFront Minnesota also expressed disappointment. “The Safe Schools for All bill is smart public policy, supported by Democrats and Republicans alike, as well as a diverse coalition of people representing disability, immigrant, education, religious and child welfare concerns,” said Monica Meyer, public policy director for OutFront. “It’s a sad day for Minnesota. Once again, Governor Pawlenty has put his own political interests ahead of the needs of everyday Minnesotans.”

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