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Published March 14, 2011, 01:39 PM

ND lawmakers debate solutions to bullying

BISMARCK, N.D. (AP) — Minot state Sen. Oley Larsen says his Scandinavian name made him a constant target growing up, but the outspoken critic of a pair of anti-bullying bills says punishing those who torment others won't solve the problem.

BISMARCK, N.D. (AP) — Minot state Sen. Oley Larsen says his Scandinavian name made him a constant target growing up, but the outspoken critic of a pair of anti-bullying bills says punishing those who torment others won't solve the problem.

The Republican, who works as a Minot high school shop teacher, told the House Education Committee on Monday that schools should instead teach students how not to take a bully's words seriously.

"The bully will never leave," Larsen said. "As an infant in diapers, kids are aggressive to each other. At the workplace, adults are aggressive to each other. It's the education of how not to be victimized that's the key, and that's been lost."

Larsen earned a master's degree in educational leadership at North Dakota State University and said he was influenced by the work of Israel Kalman, a school psychologist who offers advice on defusing bullying situations.

Students can learn to ignore teasing and criticism, which will remain a critical skill for the rest of their life, Larsen said.

"If kids need to depend on the schools to get rid of bullies, they're likely to stay victims for a long time," he said. "In contrast, 'victim-proofing' teaches kids not to be victims."

On Monday, the House Education Committee reviewed an anti-bullying bill that has already been approved by the Senate. The committee took no action on the measure. Senators are considering a similar bill that the House has endorsed.

Larsen has made similar arguments at other hearings on anti-bullying legislation. His views have drawn strong reactions from people who believe Larsen's philosophy blames the victim and accepts the problem without trying to change it.

"I felt like standing up and yelling, 'Yeah, bullying has always been there, but does that mean we have to let it continue?'" said Rhonda Boehm, whose son, Eric, suffered a brain injury in eighth grade that made a him a target for bullying in high school. "We need to educate in order to make progress."

Larsen, in a Senate floor speech last month, said that "experiencing difficulty and pain is essential for emotional growth."

"If we actually succeed in raising children who never experience any abuse or neglect, they would grow up to be emotional marshmallows, frustrated when they don't get what they want, and unable to handle people mean or inconsiderate towards them," Larsen said.

Both of the pending bills say schools must train teachers on how to stop bullying and offer prevention programs for students, starting in kindergarten.

The bills require school boards to adopt an anti-bullying policy by 2012, which must include a definition of bullying and guidelines for punishment.

Rep. RaeAnn Kelsch, R-Mandan, the chairwoman of the House Education Committee, said schools could easily include Larsen's ideas in developing programs to prevent bullying. Tighter rules are only necessary because bullying has escalated in recent years, she said.

"If bullying hadn't grown to be such a big issue, we could probably take Sen. Larsen's type of stand on the issue," Kelsch said. "But it's gotten out of hand, and there are always going to be some people more vulnerable in life."

Williston middle school teacher Karen Toavs said bullying has become harder to control with the increasing use of social media and text messaging, and it often plays out in front of more people because the technology is so widespread. Students can only ignore so much criticism before it affects their learning, she said.

"I don't think you can just tell kids, 'Get a thick skin,'" said Toavs, who teaches language arts and was named North Dakota's Teacher of the Year in October. "They need more support than that. To them the peer pressure is so much larger than it may seem to us."

Rep. Mike Schatz, R-New England, said he liked Larsen and Kalman's ideas. He said bullying and hostility happen in every phase of life, and students should learn how to handle the problems early on.

"We need to educate students to stop being victims," Schatz said. "If there is no bullying, and children don't have any resilience to aggression toward them, and later on they do get it, then what happens to them?"

As for Larsen, the criticism sparked by his opposition to the Legislature's anti-bullying bills has offered a chance to put his tactics into action.

"Not being victimized means knowing words will never hurt you," Larsen said. "If somebody's saying words to you, you need to be educated to know that they're only words, and those words aren't who you are. If the words aren't you, they should not matter."

The bills are SB2167 and HB1465.

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