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Anti-bullying bill still controversial

ST. PAUL ­— Legislation to strengthen Minnesota’s anti-bullying law continues to be controversial despite the latest efforts to amend the bill to satisfy school administrators’ concerns.

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The latest version of state Sen. Scott Dibble’s “Safe and Supportive Minnesota Schools Act” drew hundreds of supporters and opponents to the state Capitol on Tuesday for its first hearing of this legislative session. The measure began in the Senate Education Finance Committee. It stalled in the Senate last legislative session after the threat of a Republican filibuster.

Advocates for school administrators praised the latest changes Dibble, DFL-Minneapolis, made to his bill. They address concerns that the legislation would be costly and difficult for districts to implement. Changes include narrowing the definition of bullying, overhauling the list of school staff who must receive anti-bullying training and updating the timeline for bullying investigation to be conducted.

“This is in very good shape as it comes here today,” Roger Aronson of the Minnesota Elementary School Principals’ Association said Tuesday. “We think it works well on behalf of kids.”

Republican senators and other opponents of the bill were not convinced the changes drastically improved the measure.

They said there wasn’t enough time to study the impact of the latest amendments and that there still are concerns about the bill’s cost and school districts’ control over local decisions. Opponents continued to raise concerns about language in the bill that specifies certain groups who are protected from bullying.

“Nothing has been substantially changed in this bill to protect kids,” said State Sen. Roger Chamberlain, R-Lino Lakes. “This is about the innocence of kids. Nothing has been done in this bill to address that.”

Sen. Carla Nelson, R-Rochester, urged committee chair Sen. Patricia Torres Ray, DFL-Minneapolis, to take up alternative legislation sponsored by her and Chamberlain. Their “Stamp Out Bullying” act, which was introduced last week, is modeled after laws they say have national support and are successful in other states.

What the alternative bill leaves out is one of the most controversial parts of Dibble’s legislation, which he says is essential to protect every student. The safe schools bill specifies students cannot be bullied because of their sexual orientation or gender identity, something opponents equate to “special protection” for lesbian, gay and transgender students.

Dibble replied that the bill protects all students, but specificity is necessary to ensure certain students receive the help they need.

“We are trying to strike that balance,” Dibble said.

The bill is expected to go to the Senate Finance Committee next before heading to the Senate floor.

The Pioneer Press is a media partner with Forum News Service.