MPR News investigation: Minnesota lacks strong bullying law, state oversightby Tom Weber, Minnesota Public Radio
St. Paul, Minn. — At just 37 words, Minnesota's law against bullying is one of the shortest in the nation:
"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."
That's the only requirement. Unlike other state laws, it contains no list of what those policies must include.
Approved by legislators in 2005 and amended two years later, Minnesota's law leaves individual districts largely responsible for implementing their own bullying prevention measures.
A six-month Minnesota Public Radio News investigation of bullying policies across the state found a patchwork of policies that don't always incorporate the newest research on bullying. There is virtually no tracking of bullying incidents by Minnesota school districts. Critics say that makes it impossible to gauge how effective schools are at preventing bullying.
Click here to see a map of bullying incidents in Minnesota.
What is clear is that bullying persists in every Minnesota school district. A new analysis by the state departments of Health and Education found that 13 percent of Minnesota 6th, 9th and 12th graders are bullied regularly, once a week or more. If that 13 percent held for 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."
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 grassroots group of bullying prevention advocates and researchers. The group, which grades state bullying laws, gave Minnesota a C-, the lowest grade in the nation.
Although policies are thought to only be as good as the people who implement them, they are important, said Judy Kuczynski, president of Bully Police. She says such 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.
In Minnesota, most school districts use a model policy from the private Minnesota School Boards Association. While the group has won praise for its work, about one in five districts and charter schools don't use the model policy. Some districts have very little on the books regarding bullying — in some cases only a paragraph.
But the state's law on bullying doesn't require such policies, and state education officials do not review them. That makes Minnesota's state law among the weakest in the nation.
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.
"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," said Roberts, who researches bullying.
There is widespread agreement among researchers that bullying includes three elements: repetition, a goal to cause physical, verbal or social harm, and an imbalance of power that leaves victims unable to defend themselves.
However, the state's effort to combat bullying starts with the challenge of how to define it. Is it bullying when a student picks on another? Are all shoving matches bullying? When does such improper behavior become sexual harassment, for which there are more serious legal consequences?
That challenge points to the major flaw in Minnesota's state bullying law: it contains no definition of bullying. The laws of 35 states define bullying; Minnesota's does not.
"That would be the equivalent of having a speeding law that simply says 'speeding is wrong' without actually saying what speeding is and how fast constitutes speeding," said Kevin Jennings, an assistant deputy secretary in the U.S. Department of Education.
DISTRICT APPROACHES DIFFER
Officials at the state Department of Education do not review the bullying polices of individual school districts as they are not required to by law. MPR News collected and analyzed the bullying policies of the 473 traditional school districts and charter schools. Another 19 districts did not respond to repeated requests for their policy.
Of the districts that responded, about 75 percent largely use the model policy developed by the Minnesota School Boards Association. The group aims to help school boards, many of which do not have a lawyer, run their districts, association lobbyist Kirk Schneidawind said.
The model policy does fill in the void in several areas where the state's law falls short.
For example, it contains a detailed 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.
It also establishes a process for reporting and investigating bullying.
But districts don't have to enact the MSBA model policy. Some go beyond it, but others fall short — in some cases far short.
At least 15 other districts don't have a bullying policy, but instead include bullying in their harassment policies.
The Buffalo Lake-Hector-Stewart school district's bullying policy amounts to a one-paragraph statement that acknowledges a difference between sexual harassment and bullying. However, it states that all cases of bullying shall be treated in accordance with the procedures already in place for harassment.
The words "bullying" and "harassment" are often used interchangeably. But researchers like Susan Limber, a professor of psychology at Clemson University, say there are important distinctions.
She said anti-harassment laws are designed to protect someone from harassment based on the legally protected classes of race or gender.
A person can be bullied because of their race, religion or disability status but also 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.
Limber said bullying and harassment require different sets of consequences. While neither should be tolerated, bullying is often a symptom of issues that may call for counseling in addition to or instead of discipline, she said.
Counseling is one tactic the U.S. Department of Education recommended last fall in a letter to governors and state education chiefs detailing what should be included in effective state bullying laws and local policies. The department said policies should include procedures for referring victims and perpetrators to counseling or mental health services.
The model policy used by many Minnesota school districts includes a general requirement to make such resources available, but that directive is only aimed at bullying victims, not the bullies themselves.
Several provisions included in the policy include procedures on how to discipline a bully. But few school districts have policies that specifically direct schools to notify a student's family that their child has been the victim of bullying.
Cyber-bullying is another area where both Minnesota state law and the model policy provide minimal guidance. Neither the law nor the model policy uses the word. However, the model policy does describe actions that constitute bullying done over the Internet or in other electronic forums, such as text messaging.
Several districts said they were revising their policies, especially those on cyber-bullying. The school boards' association also regularly updates its model policy, as it did last fall.