“Safe Schools” coalition aims to reform bullying laws

Oscar Cozza, Staff Writer

“She was made fun of for being overweight, her red hair,” said Robin Settle regarding her niece, Haylee Fentress who attended Marshall Middle School in southwest Minnesota, in an interview with ABC news. Fentress hung herself in an apparent suicide pact with her friend, Paige Moravetz who also was a student in Marshall. They were both fourteen. And they aren’t alone.

According to the MPS, 20% of students reported threats of abuse and 38.1% reported physical harassment. A major reason for this may be Minnesota’s severe lack of comprehensive bullying legislation.

“Basically, our anti-bullying legislation is right now the weakest in the country. It’s like thirty words,” said senior Amirah Ellison who is working on the issue.

Currently, Minnesota is known to have one of the worst laws prohibiting bullying and discrimination in schools in the nation. At thirty-seven words, it reads “Each school board shall adopt a written policy prohibiting intimidation and bullying of any student. The policy shall address intimidation and bullying in all forms, including, but not limited to, electronic forms and forms involving Internet use.”

The current act was approved in 2005 and amended two years later. It leaves individual school districts almost completely responsible for implementing and enforcing rules to prevent and stop bullying.

The ‘Safe Schools for All Coalition’ is a group that is devoted to the destruction of bullying in Minnesota through comprehensive legislation. Their act, ‘The Safe and Supportive Minnesota Schools Act,’ (S.F. number 783) will aim to move Minnesota from the one of the worst bullying prevention states in the nation to number one. It includes input from many different organizations and groups, including students themselves.

SF783 promises to help prevent and remove bullying by declaring clear definitions of what bullying is in all forms on a state level. The bill’s website says “Research has shown that the best way to protect students is to provide clear declarations in laws and policies that discrimination and harassment based on the characteristics for which students are targeted is prohibited.”

“It [protects] everything that’s in the constitution, as well as more things,” stated Ellison. “It gets really specific.”

According to the ‘Safe Schools for All Info Sheet’, the bill will also provide ‘clear definitions of bullying, harassment, and intimidation’ and  ‘enumerated protections for students who are most likely to be bullied or harassed’.

Laws addressing student rights and bullying have long been avoided, like in 2009 when then Governor Tim Pawlenty vetoed SF783. Under reevaluation in 2013, the same bill was blocked by a promised ‘10 hour filibuster’ by the conservative opposition.

Militant opposition has also come from the GOP and the Archdiocese, who called it an “Orwellian nightmare.” The “Minnesota Child Protection League,” a conservative group, called it  “unsafe for children, unfair to parents and unfunded to school districts.”

They and other people and groups who oppose the bill think that it will lead to the government having more of a presence in classrooms and that this will hurt learning environments. The Minnesota Child Protection League commented, “The bill’s definition of bullying is so vague that it could include anything that hurts someone’s feelings. Teachers resent being made into some kind of speech police for the government.”

The bill still needs to pass through the Senate to be put into law, and to convince Senators to vote in favor of it, supporters of the bill will hold a rally at the capitol on March 3rd. The rally is being organized by students, and is part of the Safe Schools for All Coalition’s efforts to involve students in the process of passing the bill.

“I was brought into it through my ties through s.t.a.r.t.” said Ellison. “They’re really trying to bring students into it so we can really show legislators that this is something that affects our lives.”

Senior Lamia Abukhadra, another student who has been involved in passing SF783, said, “They want students to be in charge of it, they want students to organize be able to get their rights and voices heard and out on the table.”

Students from across the state are involved in organizing a rally to provide information about the bill to the student body. Ellison reported, “Basically our job is to organize [the rally] and to make sure that students attend, but also to make sure that there are workshops that are available to students and to organize for this bill to try and get it passed.”

All students are encouraged to come to the rally. Ellison revealed that transportation may be provided for students coming from further away. “We don’t have the exact details yet, but we want to pay for transportation for students coming from greater Minnesota. … We want to get kids from far away so we’re representing as many students as possible.”

If this bill gets passed, supporters believe that its new expectations and regulations will be fundamental in eradicating bullying and making sure that all students feel safe in school.

“Students, no matter what they’re being bullied for, whether it’s by other students in the school or adults in their school, can be protected and can have something to refer to to protect themselves from bullying,” commented Ellison.

SF783 would also establish a School Climate Center within the Department of Education. The center would provide direct assistance to students as well schools and parents seeking information or help. The Safe Schools for All Coalition website says that the proposed School Climate Center would also include “interpretation of reported bullying and harassment incidents,” “support for school sites recovering from incidents,” and “resources and opportunities for education, training, and skill building.”

If passed, supporters believe that the new expectations and rules will help empower students feeling helpless because of bullying and will be a significant step forward to an end to harassment in schools. “The bill will bring us from number forty-nine [in the nation] all the way to number one.” said Ellison.