December 2013

This appeared in the Grand Forks Herald.

Roger Chamberlain: Proposal complicates teachers’ lives while failing to help students

I was bullied when I was in grade school and middle school.

I was tall, skinny and I wore glasses. For this, and other reasons, I was frequently harassed and intimidated.

While my methods of dealing with those issues were different than what we recommend these days, I do understand what it is like to be bullied, and I am committed to eliminating bullying to whatever extent possible. But we must be careful how we approach this, or we could end up making our problems worse.

Too often, we handcuff schools by forcing upon them expensive policies that are nearly impossible to enforce. This is what the governor is doing with House File 826 (HF 826), the proposed “anti-bullying” legislation. It’s a one-size-fits-all bill that will cost school districts at least $25 million every year and generate hundreds of pages of rules and regulations.

And it won’t do anything to stop bullying.

It is simply redundant and expensive. There are already several Minnesota laws in place to protect children in schools. It starts with the Minnesota Human Rights Act, which prohibits all forms of discrimination. Another law mandates school districts adopt policies to prevent discrimination, harassment, and violence in their schools. Further, Minnesota law already requires schools to implement anti-bullying policies.

The real problem with this bill is its vagueness. It includes terms such as “objectively offensive,” “emotional distress,” and “actual or perceived.” Reports can be “anonymous” and based on “allegations.” This will create an impossible burden for teachers, who will be forced to somehow monitor all perceived “emotional distress” among students within their schools, and then fill out piles of paperwork on every complaint brought forward.

It also creates an environment where nearly anything can be considered bullying. For example, take the parent of a player on a high school football team in Texas. After watching his son’s team lose 91-0, the parent filed a bullying complaint against the coach of the winning team. The losing coach disagreed with the complaint, and even though the parent later admitted that he was wrong and tried to withdraw his complaint, state law required the investigation be completed. A waste of both time and resources for all involved.

Bullying is a real concern. We owe it to our students to provide a safe, respectful environment for our children to learn and to grow. But HF 826 is not the right way to do it.

The governor and legislators behind this bill may not trust our teachers to do their jobs, but I do. Instead of forcing upon them this massive unfunded mandate, we should allow school districts and teachers to manage their schools. Policies that work for students in Moorhead and Detroit Lakes are not necessarily policies that will work at schools in Minneapolis. In spite of the constraints placed upon them, Minnesota educators have made great progress in reducing violence, harassment, and intimidation in their schools. We should allow them to continue with their successful efforts.

During the last three years I’ve visited many schools and spoken with many teachers. They’ve come to events in my district and visited me at my capitol office. I have neighbors, friends, and family members who are teachers. They come in all shapes and sizes, and from all backgrounds. But to a person, the one thing they all have in common is that they care deeply about the well-being of the children in their schools. They wouldn’t ignore complaints or turn a blind eye toward abusive behavior, nor would adding hundreds of pages of rules make them suddenly start paying attention to harassment in their schools — they already do.

Now is not the time to impose a massive upheaval on our public schools. HF 826 is like using a fire hose to water houseplants — it is simply not the answer to the bullying problem. Teachers and principals know their students far better than legislators in St. Paul. Let’s allow them to do their work.

Sen. Roger Chamberlain