May 8, 2014
With the recent passage of the Safe and Supportive Minnesota Schools Act (MN Legis 160), all Minnesota public schools will be required to create comprehensive anti-bullying polices, which include cyberbullying prevention. The new law replaces a barebones anti-bullying provision that required schools to adopt a written policy prohibiting intimidation and bullying, which included electronic forms but did not specify further what constituted bullying or cyberbullying or what schools needed to include in their policies.
The new School Bullying Policy statute, M.S.A. § 121A.031, specifies several components that must be included in the school policies, including identification of a primary school contact to receive reports and ensure the policy and procedures and restorative practices, consequences, and sanctions are fully and fairly implemented. The policy must include specific nondiscrimination provisions based on race, religion, sex, socioeconomic status, sexual orientation, disability, among other factors. Schools must also train all staff on the new polices. The law applies to all on-premises incidents of bullying, plus cyberbullying that occurs off school premises to the extent that it substantially and materially disrupts student learning or the school environment.
M.S.A. § 121A.031, Subd. 2(f) defines cyberbullying as
bullying using technology or other electronic communication, including, but not limited to, a transfer of a sign, signal, writing, image, sound, or data, including a post on a social network Internet Web site or forum, transmitted through a computer, cell phone, or other electronic device.
Why the focus on cyberbullying? With the proliferation of smartphones, laptops, and social media, bullying behavior can now be spread to an unlimited number of people within seconds. Recent changes to bullying prevention laws in Minnesota seem to have stemmed from cases of student suicides linked to cyberbullying (a 13-year-old MN student’s suicide following an incident involving a forwarded text message; several suicides in the Anoka-Hennepin School District involved cyberbullying). Research supports the argument that cyberbullying may have stronger effects than traditional bullying: a recent study in JAMA Pediatrics (2014) found that cyberbullying was more strongly related to suicidal ideation than traditional bullying. This trend is not limited to Minnesota (see, e.g., Fla. teen charged with felony aggravated stalking after bullying on Facebook led to a 12-year-old girl’s suicide; charges later dropped).
What does this mean for Minnesota schools?
- Public schools, including charter schools, must review and update their bullying policies to address the required components listed in M.S.A. § 121A.031, subds. 3 and 4
- Public schools must designate a staff member as a primary policy contact person
- Schools must submit an electronic copy of their bullying policy to commissioner
- Schools must train staff members on the new policy
When do schools need to comply?
Although the law provides that it applies beginning the 2014-2015 school year, the timeline is not exact concerning when the new policy must be in place. Schools are to adopt and implement the policy “on a cycle consistent with other district policies”. However, since training of new employees is required within one year of their hires, schools should plan to revise their policies this year. See M.S.A. § 121A.031, subd. 3(c). There is a little more leeway with existing employees, who must be trained within 3 years.
What doesn’t the law do?
- It doesn’t create a new private cause of action
- It doesn’t limit existing rights currently available under civil or criminal law
- It doesn’t include state enforcement or penalties
- It doesn’t require schools to provide anti-bullying programmatic instruction to students (though it encourages schools to do so)
- It doesn’t apply to private schools, though they are encouraged to create similar policies
In addition, the statute specifically provides that it does not interfere with a person’s First Amendment rights. (M.S.A. § 121A.031)
What if the school doesn’t create a policy?
The Minnesota law creates a school safety technical assistance center (M.S.A. § 127A.052) that is intended to assist school districts in their creation of policies. The center is tasked to create a model policy, which schools must adopt and comply with if they do not create their own policies that comply with the guidelines listed in the act.
For a summary of state laws that include cyberbullying, click here.