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MN anti-bullying bill expected to be hotly debated in Legislature

ST. PAUL — Della Kurzer-Zlotnick had little experience with bullying until seventh grade, when a classmate asked the St. Paul student about her two mothers, who are lesbians.

“She said it in a way that was kind of surprised and a little disgusted,” Kurzer-Zlotnick remembers. “She held it over me and harassed me for a couple of weeks on Facebook.”

Kurzer-Zlotnick didn’t know where to turn for help, so she never told anyone about the incident. But it has stuck with her.

“I was really afraid,” she said. “I should be able to go to school and feel safe.”

Now a senior at Central High School, Kurzer-Zlotnick is one of several students from across the metro area speaking out in support of the Safe and Supportive Minnesota Schools Act. The proposed legislation is a comprehensive update to Minnesota’s anti-bullying law.

It’s expected to be the most passionately debated piece of education policy for the legislative session that begins Feb. 25.

Supporters say that Minnesota’s current law, at 37 words, doesn’t do enough to prevent bullying and that sweeping change is needed.

“Nobody should be OK with the fact that all we have to protect students and make schools safe from bullying is 37 words,” Kurzer-Zlotnick said. “To me, that’s ridiculous.”

Opponents argue that the 20-page bill goes too far by taking away local control and imposing costly new layers of bureaucracy on schools.

“I think it’s a bad bill,” said Crystal Crocker. The Mendota Heights mother of four worries the “one-size-fits-all” legislation will degrade parents’ and teachers’ ability to resolve disputes between students and impose a system of anonymous reports with limited parental involvement.

“I’m in total agreement we need to address this,” Crocker said. “We can do so much better for our kids.”

In 2011, a survey by the U.S. Department of Education found Minnesota’s bullying law was one of the weakest in the nation. The law doesn’t define bullying, doesn’t describe the minimum policy school districts should have to prevent it and fails to specify student groups that are most vulnerable.

The law now says: “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.”

Supporters of the Safe and Supportive Schools bill say those two sentences don’t do enough. Students and teachers need a system to educate them about bullying and how to prevent it. Students who are bullied need better protection and districts need a system to deal with students who are bullying their classmates.

Minnesota has limited data on bullying in its public schools.

The Minnesota Department of Education reports just two school years’ worth of data, and department officials say earlier numbers are unreliable. Data from the 2011-12 school year, the latest available, shows 1,120 disciplinary incidents related to bullying. That’s less than 2 percent of the 60,060 discipline incidents reported statewide.

The Minnesota Student Survey that’s given to students every three years found 53 percent of sixth-graders said they’d been bullied by another student. The survey also found 42 percent of sixth-graders admitted to bullying a classmate.

In 2012, Gov. Mark Dayton created a task force of experts, educators and lawmakers to improve Minnesota’s anti-bullying law. The task force recommendations make up much of the Safe and Supportive Schools bill, which is similar to legislation vetoed by Gov. Tim Pawlenty in 2009.