New Anti-Bullying Bill Introduced in House

27 Jan

As Jennifer Brooks notes in the Star Tribune’s ‘Hot Dish Politics‘ blog, a new bill, H.F. 1953, was introduced on Jan. 26, 2012 in the Minnesota House of Representatives.

The bill proposed to modify language currently under Minn. Stat. § 122A.60, and define “bullying” as “conduct that occurs in a school, on school district or charter school premises, in a district or charter school owned or leased school bus or school vehicle, or at any school or school district sanctioned or sponsored activity or event and that:

(1) is so severe, pervasive, or objectively offensive that it substantially interferes with the student’s educational opportunities;
(2) places the student in actual and reasonable fear of harm;
(3) places the student in actual and reasonable fear of damage to property of the student; or
(4) substantially disrupts the orderly operation of the school.”

Plenty of room for individual interpretation in this language, it would seem.

It’s also worth noting that the bill includes a subsection stating that “‘Conduct’ includes the use of technology or other electronic media.”

The bill would also require that each school district come up with a “Bullying Prohibition Policy” to prevent acts of bullying, as well as retaliation against victims of bullying and individuals who witness, report, or provide information about acts of bullying. Each district is supposed to create their own definition for what constitutes an act of bullying that “at least encompasses the conduct described” in the bill (see above). Each individual district is  free to draw more strict definitions of bullying as they see fit.

The individual school districts are also required to establish procedures for reporting and documenting alleged acts of bullying and include procedures for anonymous reporting of such acts. The bill also requires that school districts notify law enforcement if they have a “reasonable suspicion that a crime might have occurred.”

From a free speech perspective, there are few things I find particularly interesting with this bill: First, that the bill includes the use of electronic communications. How would this bill apply to a “bullying” text message or e-mail sent from a student’s home that is received by another student at at school activity? Second,  that school districts are given the opportunity to draft individual policies that might, at least in theory, define any form of perceived offensive speech or activity, no matter how mundane, as “bullying.” Third, the requirement that a school district must notify law enforcement any time it thinks a crime “might” have occurred.

Brooks provides some helpful context on the proposed legislation, including that the bill was first proposed by Attorney General Lori Swanson, and that one of the bill’s authors, Rep. Jim Abeler, R-Anoka, comes from a district “shaken by an outbreak of student suicides in recent years – including some youngsters who had been tormented by bullies before their deaths.” Rep. Debra Hilstrom, DFL-Brooklyn Center, is co-author of the bill.

Brooks also notes that Minnesota’s current anti-bullying statute is 37 words long and “one of the briefest in the nation.” H.F. 1953 has been referred to the Committee on Education Reform, and you can track its progress here. No hearings are currently scheduled. According to Brooks, the bill’s supporters are working to line up Senate sponsors now.
In any case, we here at the Void have this bill on our radar. We’ll keep you posted.
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