Give new bullying law a chance to work

The Minnesota Safe and Secure Schools Act has been passed by the Legislature, signed by Gov. Mark Dayton and is now state law. The act establishes structure and detailed definition of bullying behavior. “Bullying” means “intimidating, threatening, abusive, or harming conduct that is objectively offensive. . .”

The act is specific in detail and defines the context for acts of bullying empowered by emerging technology. “Cyberbullying” means “bullying using technology or other electrocommunication, including, but not limited to, a transfer of a sign, signal, writing, image, sound, or data, including a post on a social network Internet website or forum, transmitted through a computer, cell phone, or other electronic device.”

The inclusion of technology in the definition of bullying is a valuable acknowledgment of the new world of student life facing parents and schools. Today’s student is attached to a cell phone, computer or iPad. The electronic sharing of thoughts, appropriate or not, is ubiquitous to our teens and young adults. The words are transmitted instantly, universally, and really can’t be erased.

Electronically supported bad and destructive behavior of one student to another is all that more insidious because of its far reach and permanence. In many instances the cyberbully is anonymous or thinks he or she is anonymous. The Minnesota Safe and Secure Schools Act makes it clear that bullying behavior on the web that affects the school, damages a student or staff, and/or limits the ability of a student to learn in a safe and secure environment is included in the sanctions of this law. This is a timely and critical inclusion.

Opposition to the new law is partly based on challenges to potential violation of individual “freedom of speech.” New regulatory actions are often subject to the test of constitutional freedoms; technology-based communications will always offer challenges to our rights. Nevertheless we believe the passage of the act and the inclusion of cyberbullying in the act’s provisions works for the betterment of our students and schools.

There are three issues we believe need careful attention as the new law is introduced to our schools.

First of all the content of the law should be communicated to parents and students with thoroughness and urgency. The communications should include the nuances of the language in the law and the anticipated sanctions assigned to bullying behavior. Student, parent and teacher understanding will greatly reduce the chances for arbitrary and capricious application of the law and/or frivolous complaints. The communications should be continuous and not a single event. School districts already have many components of the act in place. Each district must inform students and parents if anything related to the act is new.

The second caution is to those who must implement the law. One person’s charge of being bullied may be countered by another person’s claim to freedom of speech. Those charged with implementing the law at the local school and at the state will need patience, wisdom and much due diligence to equally protect students and constitutional rights. There may be those whose efforts to protect our students are accompanied by a strong effort to prove a point in our social, cultural and political conflicts. We have to work our way through those conflicts if we want to keep all students safe and in the best possible learning environment.

The third caution concerns the new state-level staff positions funded by the law. Opponents find the expenditure unnecessary, an expansion of state bureaucracy and a roadblock to local control. Supporters see the funding of positions as necessary to the effective implementation of the law and the fair and appropriate application of the tenets of the law. In spite of some of the claims by opponents, parents will still be able to raise their children as they have in the past.

In our opinion, the funded positions to staff the School Safety Technical Assistance Center are necessary. There will be need for support for local districts. As local districts complete steps to comply with the law, an evaluation of the center may be prudent after two years to determine if it has fulfilled its goals and whether its existence is still necessary.

Ultimately, however, the value of the state funding for the center will be in the hands of those individuals who staff it and the commissioner of the Minnesota Department of Education. If they oversee the law with reliance on local control, protect students from abuse while respecting everyone’s civil rights, communicate openly and frequently with the general public as well as with students, parents and staff, focus on the welfare of students and not the social/political issues, then the expense will be of value.

To some people, name calling, anti-social behavior, belittling and excluding are unavoidable human failings that no law can eradicate whether between adults or children. To others, hurting someone to the point of damaging their concept of self to the detriment of their learning or hindering their safety to the point of their endangerment is simply wrong and has no place in our schools.

The Minnesota Safe and Secure Schools Act is now law. It is an opportunity that can work for the benefit of our children. Give the law a chance to work.

– An opinion from the ECM Publishers Editorial Board

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