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Districts ready to meet new bullying rules

Governor Mark Dayton signed legislation last week meant to eliminate bullying in Minnesota schools, but big changes are not likely locally.

The new legislation, formally known as the Safe and Supportive MN Schools Act, requires schools to record and investigate cases of bullying and requires districts to train staff and teachers on identifying and preventing bullying behavior. It also provides more specific guidelines for what district-level anti-bullying policies should include.

The bill raised concerns among some that it was taking control away from local school districts, but Rosemount-Apple Valley-Eagan School District superintendent Jane Berenz expects the law to mean minor changes rather than sweeping overhauls.

“We’ve been working on this for quite a while,” Berenz said. “I felt as though we had a comprehensive policy in place.”

The Rosemount district has put anti-bullying programs in place at every level, and the most recent edition of the Minnesota Student Survey suggests those programs are providing results. According to that survey, given every year to students statewide, the number of students who report being harassed or bullied has gone down by more than 40 percentage points at some grade levels.

Farmington superintendent Jay Haugen was on hand when the governor signed the legislation last week. As president of the Minnesota Association of School Administrators he was involved in the bill from its beginning. He said MASA tried to remove some of the stricter requirements of the bill and allow districts more flexibility in the way they address bullying.

“Sometimes policy makers think the best way to do something is to make all kind of rules,” Haugen said. “That just makes us spend money and time and effort not actually solving the problem, but just complying with everything.”

Haugen and Berenz both say their districts already do many of the things included in the new law — providing training to staff members and tracking incidents of bullying. Haugen said he likes the new bill in part because it gives districts statewide a common set of tools for dealing with bullying.

Berenz gave Sen. Greg Clausen, a former Rosemount High School principal, credit for making the bullying bill more manageable for school districts. He helped fine-tune the definition of bullying used in the bill, focusing it more on specific activities. Earlier versions of the definition could have been interpreted to mean just about any bad act, Berenz said.

“If everything is bullying, then nothing is bullying and we won’t move forward,” Berenz said.

Clausen identified the anti-bullying legislation as one of his priorities before the session started, and he said he worked to make sure it was manageable for school districts. Among other things, that meant reducing requirements for districts to report bullying data every year.

“I was looking at it from the eyes of a school administrator, how are we going to implement this,” Clausen said. “We went back to local control.”

Nathan Hansen

Nathan Hansen has been a reporter and editor with the Farmington Independent and the Rosemount Town Pages since 1997. He is very tall.

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