Safe Schools: Questions Unanswered
Amongst great excitement over the passing of Minnesota’s more strict anti-bullying legislation this spring, there was also great concern that much was left up to individual school districts. Once the excitement faded away, questions remained to be asked regarding the logistics of this new legislation. Yes, the bill-turned-law gave a more comprehensive definition of bullying, but what did the new law actually do to combat bullying in Minnesota’s schools?
As mentioned, the new legislation provides a comprehensive definition of bullying, including cyberbullying, which has become a significant issue for students as mobile technology has become increasingly available to them. All public districts and charter schools are also directed to adopt local policies to prevent and prohibit school bullying, including the designation of a staff member at each school to monitor and investigate reports of bullying behavior. The new law also created a School Safety Technical Assistance Center at the Minnesota Department of Education to help schools with training for teachers and staff, gather data on bullying in Minnesota schools, review best practices, and help school districts develop and implement anti-bullying policies at the local level.
Even with all of these new structures thanks to the law, it still seems that a lot of the work is left to the local level of authority. What kind of support is coming from the state to ensure that bullying is actually policed?
According to Josh Collins, the Director of Communications for the Minnesota Department of Education, there are several kinds of support that the state will provide. He notes that the legislation directed the department to create a model policy to advise local school districts and charter schools in implementing the different components of the act. Local school districts and charter schools may choose to adopt this model policy or develop their own policy as long as it meets the criteria specified in the legislation (including plans for the response to bullying, staff education, and the investigation of bullying reports).
Collins goes on to report that the department will continue (and expand) training to schools in “restorative practices,” which are tools to resolving the harm caused by bullying for the student who is harmed, as well as the student who causes the harm. He also says that the School Safety Technical Assistance Council is made up of students, parents, teachers, principals, judges, and officials involved in education, law enforcement, human rights, human services and corrections. “The council is tasked with providing leadership on multiple fronts,” he says. “Including the establishment of norms and standards for prevention, intervention, and support for bullying prevention strategies, the advancement of evidence-based best practices, and various other activities.”
But with districts having the option of adapting the state’s example policy or creating their own, how are the districts going to take the language of the legislation and turn it into action in the schools? Collins says that the state will provide districts with support as they implement these policies and work with staff, parents, and students to understand the serious effects of bullying, and create a culture of safety and support.
Even with this support from the state, it still leaves a lot of the legwork to the individual districts. Who is in charge of overseeing that steps are actually being taken to prevent bullying in schools? The fact of the matter is, Minnesota is a local control state, meaning that local school boards are ultimately responsible for ensuring that state and federal laws are being followed.
“The department does provide oversight and compliance in a number of areas with districts. How that will apply to this legislation will be further developed with guidance from the School Safety Technical Assistance Council,” Collins says. “The department will be collecting every district’s anti-bullying policies as well as assurances from all districts that they are enforcing local policies that meet statutory requirements. Further guidance on measurement [of enforcement] will be developed in conjunction with the School Safety Technical Assistance Council.”
With the council not meeting until September, it is unlikely that these gaps in the legislation will be resolved in time for the new school year. Questions will likely remain unanswered, at least for the time being, as the council gets up and running. However, with the 2014-2015 school year beginning, a lot of the groundwork has already been done and set the stage for the council to add finishing touches while school districts and charter schools across the state transition into meeting the new qualifications laid out under the legislation.