By Terry Lehrke, News Editor
Leaders in local education feel their districts have already implemented much of what is included in the Safe Supportive Schools Act, signed into law Wednesday by Minnesota Gov. Mark Dayton.
The legislation, called the Safe and Supportive Schools Act, authored by Sen. Scott Dibble, DFL-Minneapolis and Rep. Jim Davnie, DFL-Minneapolis, is designed to strengthen protection against the threat of bullying in schools.
There are four components of the new law.
They direct schools to adopt local policies to prevent and prohibit school bullying and to define what behaviors and patterns of behaviors should be considered bullying, including online bullying. A staff member must also be designated at each school to monitor and investigate reports of bullying behavior.
Lastly, a school safety technical assistance center will be created at the Minnesota Department of Education (MDE) to help schools with training, gathering data on bullying in schools, review best practices and help school districts develop and implement anti-bullying policies at the local level.
Pierz Supt. George Weber said the Pierz School District has a good process in place now involving communication with parents and working with all parties to resolve any issues.
“We are very appreciative of our students, parents and staff because we do not have to confront this issue very often in our day-to-day work,” said Weber. “When we hear of it, or even something close to it, we are aggressive in trying to resolve the challenges, which often are not simple. We never want any child to feel any reluctance about being in our schools for any reason, so that is a standard we try to hold for ourselves.”
The new legislation will require some additional documentation of specific things like staff training, parent and student communication, etc., Weber said.
“There will be additional reporting burdens on the administration for many of the things we are doing already,” he said. “At this point both school attorney groups and MDE will work through the language in the new law and eventually we will get more details on the specific tasks and reporting processes that they will set up as policies.”
Weber said both the Pierz and Little Falls school districts had implemented the Olweus Anti-Bullying Program with children for several years, with success.
“All of us in Morrison County are currently blessed with many respectful and socially appropriate children moving around our schools each day,” he said. “Having been in schools non-stop for almost 30 years as an adult and of course in schools as a teenager, I am quite confident in saying it is as calm and supportive in hallways and schools now as it has ever been.”
While the district can’t claim it has no issues, “Everyone working together has made our schools a very pleasant place to be,” said Weber.
“I consistently encourage politicians, staff from MDE or other leaders and even media who have concerns about the school environment to actually spend time in our schools,” said Weber.
He said it was uplifting to just be in the hallways at passing time and watch so many children do so well in their interactions.
“It truly is a beautiful picture and I sometimes wish more leaders would experience it and see it,” Weber said. “It might change their perceptions of what public schools are all about. Sometimes the national media paints a picture that is far from our reality.”
Steve Jones, superintendent of the Little Falls School District, echoed Weber’s sentiments.
“We have been very proactive in bringing in many programs designed to help keep children safe,” said Jones. “Flyer Pride specifically addresses four areas: Respect, Responsibility, Positive Attitude and Safety. These are the expectations we hold our students and staff to each and every day.”
Like all other schools in the state, Jones said issues arise which much be immediately investigated.
“Some issues are more difficult to bring to resolution than others, but we devote efforts to seek a desirable outcome,” he said.
One of the more interesting pieces of the legislation, Jones said, is that it appears to mandate schools to prohibit online bullying among students “if it substantially and materially interferes with a student’s education.”
“Obviously, this is growing into one of the more prevalent concerns among students,” said Jones.
“The district will appreciate the guidance of the MDE and Minnesota School Boards Association as they help craft policies for individual districts,” he said.
“Ultimately,” said Jones, “it’s about helping schools create the best learning environment for all children.”
Joel Swenson, principal at Royalton Middle School/High School, noted the law will require the district to formally train teachers on a scheduled and regular basis.
“I do not feel the legislation is a tremendous change from what schools have been trying to do to address the problem of bullying,” said Swenson. “I have found cyberbullying to be a bigger challenge, and I am not sure how the law addresses that.”
Rep. Ron Kresha, R-Little Falls, said he voted against the bill, because it creates a layer of unfunded mandates that duplicate the already-successful efforts of school districts in Morrison County.
“Our local school administrators, teachers, and staff work hard every day to resolve conflicts in our schools. I support them, trust them and am grateful to them for providing safe schools,” said Kresha.
“I would rather look for ways to improve academic achievements rather than take valuable dollars out of the classroom and send them to projects like the Senate Office Building,” he said.
Although he didn’t support the legislation, Sen. Paul Gazelka, R-Cass County, said, “It’s important to make sure all children feel safe in our schools. I support anti-bullying policies that are developed and implemented at the local level and I trust principals, teachers and parents to keep our kids safe.”
Gazelka said he advocated for a bill that included parental notification requirements at the beginning, middle and end of any bullying investigation for parents of both the bullied students and alleged offenders.
When signing the bill, Dayton said Minnesota’s schools should be safe and supportive places for everyone.