One of the more controversial bills in recent memory cleared the Minnesota Senate Thursday evening, as the upper chamber voted 36-31 to pass an anti-bullying bill that had become a flashpoint issue among social conservatives. The bill’s passage brings an end to a debate that began more than a year ago.
The revised legislation was sent back to the House, which passed its own version of the bill late in the 2013 session. Under the terms of the Senate bill, school districts will be required to inscribe and implement an anti-bullying policy of their own, or accept a model policy to be developed by the Department of Education.
The final tally generally broke along party lines, though three rural Democrats — Sens. Dan Sparks, (Austin) Lyle Koenen (Clara City) and Leroy Stumpf (Plummer) — voted against its passage. Those DFLers were also among a small group of socially conservative Democrats who peeled off to vote with the Republican minority on a number of amendments brought during the floor debate, which lasted over five hours.
The legislation, chief authored by Sen. Scott Dibble, DFL-Minneapolis, was modified by a number of amendments brought during floor debate, only some of which had the author’s support. One change advanced by Sen. Greg Clausen, DFL-Apple Valley, makes slight alterations to what had been referred to as the “climate center,” a panel of experts that will advise school administrators on how to handle incidents of bullying. Clausen’s amendment changes that body’s name to the “school safety technical assistance center,” and adds a sunset provision that would see that panel brought to an end in June of 2019.
Both ideas were supported by Dibble, who said some had incorrectly perceived the “climate center” as a potentially “heavy hand” in its dealings with school districts, rather than a voluntary resource.
“If a school district never wants to have any contact with what we’re now calling the school safety and tech assistance center, they never have to,” Dibble said. “But I think it will prove useful and valuable to those schools that do.”
Another amendment approved on Thursday struck Article 1 of the legislation, which had spelled out the bill’s intent and purpose. Sen. Carla Nelson, R-Rochester, who authored that amendment, argued that the inclusion of that language goes against a longstanding Senate tradition of prohibiting language to that effect.
“The language of the bill should speak for itself,” Nelson said.
Sen. Ron Latz, DFL-St. Louis Park, countered that the language in that article had been added at the suggestion of the Attorney General’s office, and could be important for guiding legal interpretation if the bill is ever challenged in court. Latz also cited a number of recent examples of bills that had included statements of intent.
Dibble opposed Nelson’s change, but the proposal passed 35-32, with DFL Sens. Ann Rest (New Hope) and Roger Reinert (Duluth), among others, voting in support of the Republican amendment.
Sen. Warren Limmer, R-Maple Grove, successfully moved an amendment to guarantee that students accused of bullying be granted due process, including the right to defend themselves against the allegations.
Other GOP proposals, including one to replace the policy with another that already exists in North Dakota, were voted down. Republican senators repeatedly criticized the bill for provisions that they said cut parents out of the process and forced state policy onto local districts. Dibble, speaking last, said concerns along those lines had been addressed during the course of the bill’s writing, which saw contributions from hundreds of administrators and experts from around the state.
“I think it’s the first step,” Dibble said. “It’s been long awaited. It’s been asked of us, and demanded of us, by those young people we represent.”
The Senate approval sends the bill to the House, where House Speaker Paul Thissen has said the DFL caucus intends to adopt the language passed in the upper chamber. News of Thursday’s vote was met with a positive statement from Gov. Mark Dayton.
“I support the stronger protections in the anti-bullying bill, which just passed the Minnesota Senate, to provide local school districts with the guidance and support they need to make it very clear that bullying will not be allowed in our schools,” Dayton said.