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Setting a bar for bullying

Sen. Susan Kent, DFL-Woodbury, spoke during an anti-bullying forum on Feb. 12 at Woodbury Peaceful Grove/United Methodist Church. The forum focused on the proposed Safe and Supportive Minnesota Schools Act. (Staff photo by Amber Kispert-Smith)

The topic of bullying brought politics and religion together last week.

Woodbury Peaceful Grove/United Methodist Church held a community forum on Feb. 12 to discuss the proposed Safe and Supportive Minnesota Schools Act, which is currently being discussed in the Minnesota Senate.

The bill, introduced by Sen. Scott Dibble, DFL-Minneapolis, and Rep. Jim Davnie, DFL-Minneapolis, aims to prevent bullying.

“As a community of faith we wanted to make a statement of who we are and what we’re about,” said Laurie Pellerite of Woodbury Peaceful Grove/United Methodist Church. “We believe we’re a community who has each other’s back, so we wanted to show our support for this bill.

“It’s an important anti-bullying tool and if you’re not part of the solution, you are part of the problem.”

The community forum included presentations by Megan Hoel, a Woodbury High School student who encountered bullying, Tom Hoel and Maureen Nelson,  parents of bullied students, Tara Dahager and Sarah Scullin-Stokes, members of the District 833 Mental Health Team, Nik Kor, a representative from OutFront Minnesota, a local advocacy group and Sen. Susan Kent, DFL-Woodbury.

Pending legislation

Currently, Minnesota’s bullying legislation essentially states that all school districts must have an anti-bullying policy.

“The law is 36 words and says that schools have to have a policy,” Kor said. “Some districts have great policies, but there are other school districts who have very weak policies that don’t do much to protect students.”

Kent said Minnesota’s anti-bullying law is considered to be one of the weakest in the country, which is why she and others said new legislation is needed.

“It’s too generic,” she said. “We need to provide better resources and guidelines.”

The proposal was first introduced in 2013. The bill passed the Minnesota House, but it was stalled in the Senate. The Senate will once again discuss the bill this session.

Kent said she believes the bill stalled because of misinformation and concerns over unfunded mandates.

“This year, everyone is pretty optimistic about it,” she said. “I believe it has the opportunity to be bipartisan.”

If passed, Kor said the act would require all school districts to establish an anti-bullying policy that includes: clear definitions of bullying, harassment and intimidation; protections for students who are most likely to be bullied or harassed; training and resources for students, staff and school volunteers on bullying prevention and intervention; and guidelines for school staff to follow when bullying incidents are reported.

The bill would also establish a School Climate Center within the Department of Education that would: provide direct assistance for schools, parents and students seeking information or help; conduct policy review, development and dissemination; conduct summary data collection and interpretation of reported bullying and harassment incidents; identify emerging trends and issues; support schools recovering from incidents; and provide resources and opportunities for education, training and skill building.

“It’s not just about being punitive to the actors, it’s addressing all the dynamics that are creating this,” Kent said. “School districts can create their own policy as long as it meets that bar.”

’Bullying is real’

In addition to discussing the specifics of the Safe and Supportive Minnesota Schools Act, speakers during last week’s forum also shared their personal stories.

“Bullying is real,” Kor said. “It happens all the time.”

Megan Hoel, a sophomore at WHS, shared her story of dealing with cyber bullying.

“I felt alone and upset,” she said, “but, it just got worse and everything blew up in my face.”

Megan Hoel said she attempted to go to school officials over what she was experiencing, but no one seemed to have the proper knowledge or tools to handle it.

“I learned to keep quiet,” she said. “No one should have to keep things to themselves.”

Bullying doesn’t just affect students, however. Megan Hoel’s father Tom shared his experiences dealing with bullying, both with Megan and her brother.

“From a parent’s perspective to often feel helpless and sometimes hopeless to stop that kind of pain is the worst kind of feeling,” he said. “This culture of bullying has to stop.”

Maureen Nelson, of Woodbury Peaceful Grove/United Methodist Church, had similar experiences to that of Tom Hoel when her son was bullied.

“When you can’t do anything to help your child to feel better, to feel accepted, to feel cared for.

“It’s the rottenest feeling possible,” she said.

Nelson and Kor urged attendees at last week’s forum to not only read the bill, but to talk to those capable of helping it forward.

“No bill is going to solve everything, but this bill is a good start,” Kor said.

“I don’t care how old you are, I don’t care how young you are,” Nelson said, “We have a chance to change our schools for the better and I believe this bill has the power to do that.”

Amber Kispert-Smith

Amber Kispert-Smith has been the schools and Afton reporter at the Woodbury Bulletin since 2008. She holds a bachelor’s degree in journalism from the University of Minnesota. She previously worked as a reporter for Press Publications in White Bear Lake.

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