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On Tuesday evening, the Safe and Supportive Minnesota Schools Act passed its first hurdle in the Senate.

The Safe and Supportive Minnesota Schools Act passed the Senate Education Committee on Thursday evening on a voice vote along partisan lines. The bill would bolster Minnesota’s anti-bullying laws, widely regarded as among the weakest in the nation at just 37 words.

Religious right and Tea Party groups have been organizing against the bill, mainly because of the inclusion of LGBT students. Advocates for the LGBT community, labor unions, students with disabilities, and varied religious groups have been promoting the bill, citing statistics that some students are bullied more often than others.

The bill passed the House in 2013 although that version differed significantly than the one passed by the Senate Education Committee.

Sen. Scott Dibble, who has been working on the bill for almost a decade, proposed a set of amendments aimed at assuaging the concerns of school administrators, and testimony before the committee seemed to indicate that it worked.

Roger Aronson, head of the Minnesota Elementary School Principals Association, told the committee members, “It was a nice opportunity to say we are coming in support. This really is a good working bill that we can implement in schools to do good things for kids.”

Grace Kelliher, of the Minnesota School Boards Association, agreed. “We hit some bumps but we’ve gotten back on the path. It’s premature to say we are 100 percent supportive but many concerns were covered.”

The Minnesota School Boards Association has been sharply critical of the original version of the bill.

Among the changes to the bill include changes to anti-bullying training for school volunteers which was greatly scaled back. Anti-bullying policies would no longer have to posted throughout the school and in multiple langauges. All data collection and analysis mandates were stripped from the bill and will be worked on by the School Climate Center in the future. The term “harassment” was taken out of the definition of bullying because, Dibble said, Minnesota statutes already deal with that issue.

But Republican members of the committee were harsh critics of the bill.

Sen. Roger Chamberlain called the amendments, “four pages of mistakes!” and lamented the “trouble it’s going to cause our kids. It’s about the innocence of our kids and nothing in here addresses it.” He did not elaborate on what he meant.

Chamberlain and Sen. Carla Nelson had introduced a separate anti-bullying bill modeled after one in North Dakota.

It’s been rated by our federal government and StopBullying.gov as A++,” Nelson said.

But she was mistaken. The federal government doesn’t rate such bills, but a group called BullyPoliceUSA gave the North Dakota law “A++.” BullyPoliceUSA is run by Brenda High, a Mormon and Republican activist from Washington State. Though she says she supports right for LGBT people, she’s also worked with groups affiliated with Focus on the Family and partnered with Warren Throckmorton, who advocated ex-gay therapy (Throckmorton has since come out against ex-gay therapy and regularly checks the religious right on their anti-LGBT sentiments).

Radio host Michelangelo Signorile confronted High on her organization’s work with the religious right back in 2005. “I think she is completely being used by these people and I told her so,” he said.

The committee heard testimony mainly from those who traveled a long distance to be there.

Michelle Lefever, a parent in Maple Grove testified. “I have many concerns with the original bill,” she said. “Bullying is bad, but I don’t believe that this bill is the way to address this problem.”

Jean Osterby, a retired public school teacher, worried that the bill didn’t allow parents to be contacted when an incident occurs (it does).

Many of the testifiers against the bill said the bill does not protect all kids.

Ani Wiberg a student in Dodge Center made that claim.
“I was bullied at my old school,” she said. “I have bullied other kids before too. I’m sorry for whoever I did it too”

“I really don’t like this bully bill. It singles out kids for special treatment. I don’t think that’s fair… A law to help stop bullying should just say that all kids are protected” and “make sure that no kids were singled out for special protections.”

Kathy Trosvick also testified. She lost her son Tom to suicide after he was bullied. Her message is being co-opted by the Minnesota Child Protection League, an anti-LGBT group, who has made a video about Trosvick’s story.

“He was just a normal, quirky boy who wouldn’t fit into any category in this bill,” Trosvik said. “I oppose this bill because it doesn’t protect other children like Tom. All children need to be protected, not just those deemed by legislators more worthy of protection.”

“This bill is being promoted by OutFront and that tells me all children are not protected by this bill,” said Douglas Kern from Crow Wing. He is a Republican activist. He tried to recall Rep. Joe Radinovich after he voted for marriage equality, an effort that the Minnesota Supreme Court rejected.

He also falsely claimed that if marriage equality passed, churches would have to marry same-sex couples.

But, DFL committee members challenged that argument. Committee Chair Patricia Torres Ray said, “We are not being selective as to who gets protection and who doesn’t. [It protects] every child no matter who they are.”

Sen. Dibble pointed to several places in the bill where it states “all students.”

Some testifiers spoke in support of the bill.

Jae Bates, a student in Minnetonka, shared experiences of being transgender in school.

“The end of my torture only came after I voiced suicidal thoughts to social work staff at my school,” Bates said. “Things changed because people finally realized how much their words and their actions were truly hurting me.”

Two other students noted anti-LGBT slurs in their schools and that fellow students had said they were going to hell. Those students noted a lot of resistance by school administrators to taking action on bullying.

Nabil Azzuouzi, senior at Great River School in St. Paul. He’s also a Muslim. He recalled some students commenting after Osama Bin Laden was killed, “Sorry your leader died.” He noted that other Muslim students transferred to other schools because of anti-Muslim statements. “We need this bill to be passed,” he said.

Perhaps to underscore the potential that some students have to bully based on religious conviction, a young man showed up at the hearing wearing a t-shirt that read, “Warning: Sodomites, fornicators, whores, whoremongers, porn freaks, baby-murderers, thieves, drunkards, pot-heads, lukewarm Christians, God Will Judge You.”

warningsodomites

The bill passed on a voice vote on Tuesday evening. The bill now heads to the Senate Finance Committee.

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Andy Birkey
Andy Birkey has written for a number of Minnesota and national publications. He founded Eleventh Avenue South which ran from 2002-2011, wrote for the Minnesota Independent from 2006-2011, the American Independent from 2010-2013. His writing has appeared in The Advocate, The Star Tribune, The Huffington Post, Salon, Cagle News Service, Twin Cities Daily Planet, TheUptake, Vita.mn and much more. His writing on LGBT issues, the religious right and social justice has won awards including Best Beat Reporting by the Online News Association, Best Series by the Minnesota chapter of the Society of Professional Journalists, and an honorable mention by the Sex-Positive Journalism awards.

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