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Published May 16, 2011, 01:41 PM

Report finds Minnesota law weak on bullying

ST. PAUL, Minn. (AP) — A six-month investigation of anti-bullying efforts in Minnesota schools has found a patchwork of local policies with virtually no tracking of bullying incidents and little state oversight, Minnesota Public Radio News reported Monday.

ST. PAUL, Minn. (AP) — A six-month investigation of anti-bullying efforts in Minnesota schools has found a patchwork of local policies with virtually no tracking of bullying incidents and little state oversight, Minnesota Public Radio News reported Monday.

Critics told the station that lack of tracking makes it impossible to gauge how effective schools have become in preventing bullying. It's one of several weaknesses in the state law, critics claim.

The Legislature first approved an anti-bullying law in 2005 and amended it two years later, but left individual districts largely responsible for combatting school bullying themselves.

The law 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."

At just 37 words, Minnesota's anti-bullying law is among the shortest in the nation. It doesn't include a definition of bullying, mandates about what a district policy must include or penalties for bullies. There's no requirement that the Department of Education review district policies to make sure they comply.

The only states with fewer restrictions on bullying are Hawaii, Michigan, Montana and South Dakota, which don't have laws against it, according to Bully Police USA, a nationwide grass-roots group of bullying prevention advocates and researchers. The group gave the Minnesota law a C-, the lowest grade in the nation.

Although policies can only be as good as the people who implement them, they are important, said Judy Kuczynski, president of Bully Police. She said the rules set a tone that helps shape a school's culture.

"You've got something that's more standard and more universal, so it's not so arbitrary," Kuczynski said.

There's little doubt that bullying persists in Minnesota school districts. A recent analysis by the state departments of Health and Education found that 13 percent of Minnesota sixth, ninth and 12th graders are bullied regularly. If that 13 percent held for the state's entire student population, it would mean that more than 100,000 students are bullied on a regular basis.

"What's upsetting is that it's still going on," Education Commissioner Brenda Cassellius said. "We just have to be sure we're creating environments for children that are safe and welcoming."

Opponents of a stronger law say it would infringe on the local control of schools and there's no proof that stronger state laws lead to a decrease in bullying cases. However, MPR News reports no one has studied that.

Cassellius said that's no reason not to update the law.

"This is just simply protecting our children," she said. "Bullying is not a partisan issue; every single parent in the community wants their child to be safe. To me, this should have been done a while ago."

To find out what schools were actually doing about bullying, MPR News collected and analyzed the anti-bullying policies of 473 traditional school districts and charter schools in the state. Only 19 districts didn't respond to requests for their policies.

The station reported Monday (http://bit.ly/m49Sq3) that about 75 percent of districts that responded use at least part of a generally well-regarded model policy from the Minnesota School Boards Association, which fills in some gaps in the state law.

For example, it includes a definition of bullying that includes written and verbal expressions and physical acts, gestures or patterns intended to cause distress in another student — or that is perceived to. The bullying could harm the student, damage a student's property or cause them to be fearful or crate a hostile educational environment.

Some districts go beyond the model policy, but others fall short. At least 15 other districts don't have a bullying policy, but instead include bullying in their harassment policies.

Susan Limber, a professor of psychology at Clemson University, said the words "bullying" and "harassment" are often used interchangeably, but there are important differences.

She said anti-harassment laws are designed to protect someone based on the legally protected classes of race or gender, but a person can be bullied for arbitrary reasons, like their body size or the clothes they wear.

"I think confusing the terms 'bullying' and harassment' can be problematic for schools," Limber said.

Allowing local school districts to decide such policies likely is not doing much to curb bullying, said Walter Roberts, a professor of counselor education at Minnesota State University-Mankato, who researches bullying.

"If you give local school districts the option to adopt what they like and not adopt what they don't like, then I'm not sure we're providing all the protection for the kids that we need to," Roberts said.

Critics claim that leaving the issue up to districts also means the lack of a statewide data tracking program .

Minnesota does require schools to report disciplinary incidents — including bullying and cyber-bullying — that lead to at least a day's suspension. But researchers said most bullying is handled with less-severe discipline.

One Minnesota district that does track data on bullying is Forest Lake, which uses a prevention strategy called Olweus, named for Dan Olweus, a pioneer of bullying research. One requirement is to survey students and track data.

Once schools learned how to use the data, it became an effective tool, said Carolyn Latady, the district's family support advocate. "Overall, we've seen decreases in bullying — certainly kids bullying other and also being bullied," she said.

One school in the Forest Lake district, Scandia Elementary, had 17 behavior referrals last year, down from 39 a few years ago.

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