This is a guest post from Joe Praska. He is a recent University of Minnesota graduate with a BA in Sociology of Law, Criminology, and Deviance with a minor in Urban Studies. For more information on this series and submitting your own perspective on education post, click here.
I remember, as a first grader, stepping on the bus to go home and finding every seat filled except for one. The spot was next to a fifth grader whom I generally felt uneasy about, however as it was the only spot, I sucked it up and sat down next to him. What followed was an earful about how, if I kept sitting next to him, he would slit my throat the next day. Nervous, I tried standing up, only to be yelled at by the bus driver to sit back down. I was stuck for the rest of the ride sitting quietly next to the kid as he repeated his claims and explained how he planned to bring in a knife.
Looking back on this situation, nothing ever came from his empty threats, and most of what he said seems not only hollow but, to put it pointedly, stupid and impractical. My memory of this incident flares feelings of mostly annoyance more than anything – but at time, as just a first grader, it made the 15-minute bus ride feel like an eternity.
I would by no means consider myself someone who had a bullying problem in school, but I use this example to point out that everybody encounters bullying. Whatever your opinion of it is, it exists. For many students it is simply a nuisance or an annoying memory, but for countless others, it can grow and fester to the point of unbearable. The impact of bullying is devastating to students, our schools, and to society as whole.
A 2010 survey done by the Departments of Health and Education revealed that 13% of Minnesota students reported being bullied once or more a week. This is strongly reflective of the fact that a 2011 U.S. Department of Education report found that Minnesota’s anti-bullying policy as the weakest in the nation. Clocking in at only 37 words, the law does not outline a definition of bullying nor does it detail any recommendations or guidelines for schools to craft effective anti-bullying policies. Fortunately, Minnesota’s state lawmakers have been taking notice of the numbers. Governor Dayton created an anti-bullying task force in 2012, which released a detailed report of policy recommendations. This report has most recently manifested itself as the Safe and Supportive Minnesota Schools Act, authored by Rep. Jim Davnie and Senator Scott Dibble, currently making its way through the legislature.
See Bill summary here: http://www.house.leg.state.mn.us/hrd/bs/88/hf0826.pdf
Out front in its opposition bill is the Minnesota Catholic Conference (MCC). The MCC cites four reasons for opposition to the bill; that it violates first amendment rights to free speech, imposes mandates and costs on private schools, is too costly, and doesn’t protect all children. I do not want to comment too much on the arguments relating to cost and mandates to private schools, as those will simply reflect ideological differences on the governments’ role in our society or the price tag of or children’s livelihoods. However, on the other hand, the MCC’s claims that the bill violates rights to free speech and doesn’t protect all children are misguided in my opinion.
The concern stems from wording in the bill, specifically under the subdivision labeled, definitions:
“Indicates that intimidating, threatening, abusive, or harassing conduct may involve conduct that is directed at a student or students based on a person’s actual or perceived race, ethnicity, color, creed, religion, national origin, immigration status, sex, age, marital status, familial status, socioeconomic status, physical appearance, sexual orientation, gender identity and expression, academic status, disability, or status with regard to public assistance, age, or any additional characteristic defined in chapter 363A”
The MCC has stated that the protection of, “sexual orientation, gender identity and expression,” violates their rights to free speech to oppose homosexuality and will in turn create the forced teaching of homosexuality in schools. They continue to say that by clearly defining bullying, many children will not be protected. I believe this latter argument is a hollow one, as we’ve seen that blanket policies without mentioning specifics often allow people to fall through the cracks. Take the recent renewal of the Violence Against Women Act at the federal level – before the renewal, we saw LGBT Americans and Native Americans being kept from domestic abuse resources and turned away from shelters due to ideological differences and holes in the legal system. All this indicates that blanket policies without specifics, in these cases of protection, simply allow for discriminatory practices.
The wording used in this bill stems from problems that the LGBT community has faced in regards to bullying – problems that have made negative, national headlines for Minnesota. The Anoka-Hennepin school district specifically made waves and faced numerous lawsuits for what was deemed a “toxic” atmosphere for LGBT students, and record numbers of student suicides. See last year’s ‘Rolling Stone’ article on the topic: http://www.rollingstone.com/politics/news/one-towns-war-on-gay-teens-20120202?page=2
I remember in middle school being told I was “gay” for reading a Batman comic in homeroom and for openly telling others that my favorite show was Star Trek. Now, mentalities have shifted as people lined up to see The Dark Knight films at midnight, and Star Trek Into Darkness is set to be a huge summer blockbuster. Times change and there is always a light at the end of the tunnel, but for some that light appears dimmed and others cannot see it at all. We can’t always wait for the natural course of these changes to take place and we must quickly act to ensure that our children are not alienated and tormented at school. We should all work together to push and advocate for productive and positive change. This is not, and should not be, a partisan issue – it’s a human one.