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Professor, students make headway at MN Capitol

DETROIT LAKES — A few years ago, Jayne Jones was sitting in a Twin Cities bar playing cribbage with her now husband, and there happened to be a legislator there having one too many drinks — or more.

“He was drunk as a skunk, and he announced to the entire bar that unlike us, he could drive home drunk and not get arrested,” she said.

His secretary was with him, and told him to show the bar patrons his card — an immunity card that legislators possess and, according to the Minnesota Constitution, acts as a “get out of jail free card.”

This “privilege from arrest” includes the members of each house in all cases except treason, felony and breach of peace, and says they “shall be privileged from arrest during the session of their respective houses and in going to or returning from the same.”

“So he stumbled to the door and drove away,” Jones said of the drunken legislator she encountered.

That encounter set the wheels rolling for Jones’ next class assignment.

Jones, a Detroit Lakes native, teaches political science at Concordia University in St. Paul. She started teaching about six years ago after working in the U.S. Senate.

The first year she taught, she was watching a news story about a little Spring Lake boy named Kyle Herman, who had Down syndrome and was being abused by his teacher. The family didn’t know about the abuse until three years later.

“I watched that while I was writing my first class syllabus and I told my students that first day, ‘Listen, we can either do political science by the textbook, or we could actually go and try to change this law for this little boy.’ ”

The class chose the second option.

With their work, Gov. Tim Pawlenty signed the Kyle Herman Bill into law that year. Now it’s a matter of days, not years, before a family is informed about a school abuse investigation.

According to the Minnesota House of Representatives website, the bill strengthened child abuse reporting in Minnesota schools.

When Kyle was 6, the abuse with his teacher started. The school began an investigation into the abuse, but it took two years before his parents found out the school was investigating.

“The Kyle Herman law will require the Minnesota Department of Education to notify parents and guardians when they are investigating a possible case of child abuse. The Department will have 10 days to report the investigation, and will also have (10 days) to follow up after the investigation is complete,” the website says.

So it’s fair to say that Jones and her students have some experience when it comes to taking action and getting things accomplished at the Capitol.

The next year her new class did another bill, and then the following year — about three years ago — her students started working on the legislative immunity law they are working on again this year.

Jones and her students are trying to include DWI within the definition of “breach of peace,” erasing legislators’ immunity for driving drunk.

She said they don’t want to change the constitution, just the definition of breach of peace to include impaired driving.

Though they were ready to go three years ago, they were taken off the docket — reasons are varied, she said — and were told to come back a different year. This year, she said she has a great group of students and they have taken up the cause once again.

“We dove in, thinking it wasn’t going to be that big of a battle,” she said, laughing.

They have since spent every day at the Capitol, meeting with legislators, getting support — or being told they were the joke of the Capitol — and educating people on the issue.

“We’re OK in the House now. Now we’re working on the Senate,” she said.

With this kind of hands-on learning, Jones said her students are learning way more than they would be sitting in a classroom, reading from a textbook.

“I think they’ve taken a few bruises on the face, but they absolutely love this process,” Jones said, adding that her students come back to tell her they learned more in her class than the entire four years of college.

Jones said the numbers are on their side for getting the amendment to breach of peace passed, but if it doesn’t, she may be back again. It all depends on her students.

“We’ve had some suggestions the last six months. I’ve heard an interesting veterans’ bill,” she said of future class ventures. “I don’t know. It will be up to the students and their interests.”