Bryan Morben, MJLST Managing Editor
On April 9, many students, parents, teachers, and school administrators rejoiced as Minnesota Governor Mark Dayton signed the Safe and Supportive Schools Act (the 7th engrossment of House Bill 826) into law. Senator Dibble, author of the bill in the Senate, recognized that “[n]o young person should be forced to choose between going to school or being safe. But today, far too many are put in that position.” At the same time, however, many others disapprove of the Act as a solution to the bullying and cyberbullying crisis in Minnesota.
Without offering any recommendation to address the problem themselves, opponents of the Act continue to shoot it down on, what seems to me, to be mostly baseless grounds. I address a number of these in my article “The Fight Against Oppression in the Digital Age: Restructuring Minnesota’s Cyberbullying Law to Get with the Battle,” which can be found here. In that article, I recommended that the Minnesota adopt HF 826 (6th engrossment) to drastically improve Minnesota’s antibullying law at the time. Since publication of the article, the bill went through one more engrossment before becoming law.
In a recent blog post, a fellow member of MJLST, Erin Fleury, made a couple counterpoints against adoption of the bill as recommended in my article. Specifically, Mr. Fleury argues that the definition of “bullying” was still overly broad and could encompass behavior not intended by the legislature. The definition Mr. Fleury quotes, however, is not found in the text of the 6th engrossment that I recommended. In fact, the Senate’s amended version of the bill, which Mr. Fleury says “remedies these defects by requiring that all bullying conduct be ‘objectively offensive,'” is the same in the prior version of the bill that I suggested (with a small change from “harassing conduct” to “harming conduct”).
Mr. Fleury also contends that the prior bill could include “class clown” behavior as bullying because it would routinely interrupt and interfere with the learning environment. Again, I think this argument is without merit. First, it is unlikely that this conduct would arise to the “material and substantial” level of interference required by the bill (and interpreted by student-speech case law). And second, both the 6th engrossment and the amended version signed into law specifically state that the school bullying policy, including what constitutes bullying, “applies to bullying by a student against another student . . . .” (See Section 3, Subdiv. 1, emphasis added). Therefore, a class clown not directing his conduct towards any other specific student would not fall under the bullying definition.
As noted in my article, antibullying legislation like the Safe and Supportive Schools Act has been thoroughly reviewed and recommended by experts like the U.S. Department of Education and the MN Task Force on the Prevention of School Bullying. The MN Task Force was composed of parents, community members, health care professionals, education experts, school administrators, and policymakers. I believe that they have crafted a well-balanced law that should help curtail the bullying problems occurring in Minnesota schools without infringing on students’ rights.