Two Minneapolis legislators are reintroducing the Safe Schools for All bill during an upcoming special legislative session called to deal with tornado and flood damage by storms late this summer. Sen. Scott Dibble and Rep. Jim Davnie, both DFL-Minneapolis, said that Minnesota is facing an emergency when it comes to school bullying and suicide following news that four LGBT students in the Anoka-Hennepin School District took their own lives after facing harassment by their peers.
“The special session was called to respond to emergencies across the state: The bullying epidemic in our schools is, in fact, an emergency,” Dibble said at a press conference on Wednesday. “Several Minnesota parents have linked their children’s suicides to bullying issues in the past year, and countless other youth are dealing with harassment when they walk into their school buildings every single day. Minnesota has a crisis, but we also have the ability to address that crisis by laying a strong policy foundation and saying degradation of any form, for any reason, will not be tolerated in our schools.”
The bill would assist schools by making anti-bullying policies consistent across the state. It provides policy guidance on the 14 characteristics spelled out in the Minnesota Human Rights Act; these 14 are in addition to the factors of sex, race and religion that are currently part of Minnesota’s anti-bullying law.
Republicans and religious right leaders have opposed the bill because sexual orientation and gender identity are included in those 14 characteristics. Gov. Tim Pawlenty vetoed the bill last session.
“In regard to the categories, some people believe that no bullying should be tolerated, and that’s true. It shouldn’t,” said Monica Meyer of OutFront Minnesota. “But studies show that by enumerating the policy to include those characteristics and prohibit discrimination, that the policies create a safer environment.”
She added that the U.S. Supreme Court has consistently agreed with enumerating categories in discrimination cases it has ruled on.
Leigh Combs, Abuse Intervention Program Coordinator at the Family Partnership, said that youth are struggling in Minnesota schools. “Young people are taking their lives to make us listen. It is time to stop playing political games with young people’s lives.”
She added, “When you train the staff you increase their knowledge, you increase their skills and the chances they will address gay bullying.”
Also speaking at the press event was Gene Bender, a volunteer with ARC of Minnesota, which works with individuals with intellectual and developmental disabilities. She spoke about her son’s experience in school.
“I can tell you how unsafe our schools are for students with disabilities,” she said. “The use of the R-word not only affects my son, it affect his siblings as well.”
The bill includes policies against bullying of disabled students.
“Wouldn’t it be great if we could pass this legislation and allow our students to set the example for those who didn’t do it years ago?”
Phil and Barb Shraeder shared the story of their son, who came out as gay in middle school.
“He endured three years of harassment and bullying. He was pushed in the halls, called names,” said Barb. She recalled a homecoming game in high school where her son was using a porta-potty and a group of students tried to push it over with him inside.
They complained to the school district but were rebuffed. “It was basically ‘boys will be boys,’ that these were basically high school hi-jinks,” said Phil.
Eventually, the Schraeder’s learned that their son was about to commit suicide and reached him before he went through with it.
“This story is different for us than the ones you hear on the news; we still have our son,” said Barb.
“Is this an emergency?” asked Phil regarding criticisms from reporters. “Yes it is. We have students dying. If that isn’t an emergency, I don’t know what is.”
One reporter followed up with Dibble and asked, “Is this an attempt to embarrass Pawlenty and Emmer in an election year?”
Dibble said, “Anyone who is responding politically is just being cynical.” Those who chose to politicize the issue “will be embarrassed by their own actions,” he added.
“It’s not the governor’s race that is making this an issue,” he said. “It’s that we’ve lost a number of lives.”
He said that it was the “evidence of the aftermath and consequences of [Pawlenty’s] veto.”
Davnie added, “We didn’t choose the timing for this. This is a recognition that there is a crisis. We are the adults in this state and our youth need to know that it gets better.”
He said, “We are going to try and make things better.”