I was honored to be invited to attend a recent event at the Woodbury/Peaceful Grove United Methodist Church, which promised to be a discussion about “bullying prevention legislation.”
Going in, I knew it would be a community gathering and that there would be speakers sharing their stories of having experienced bullying, along with a question and answer period. I was invited to make a few remarks, and I planned to give an update on where the Safe & Supportive Schools Act stands in the legislative process, as well as make a few points about what’s included in the bill. There’s been a lot of confusion, and I’ve been surprised by constituents who have expressed concerns about things that aren’t actually included in the bill. This was the time to clarify any misunderstandings.
When I arrived, I was pleasantly surprised to see a lot of concerned middle and high school students. It was a great turnout, and I’m always glad to see people attend events to learn, discuss, share and explore. This kind of engagement is how we better understand our world, and in some cases, how “we the people” can make a difference in government processes.
Attendees participated in a great discussion on the issue of bullying. A 10th grader bravely stood before the audience and told her story of having been bullied. Her dad spoke after her, and every parent in the room hurt with him as he described the pain and frustration of watching his child struggle. School professionals from South Washington County Schools talked about how bullying affects kids and learning, as well as the steps they’re taking to make a difference.
Then came the legislative part of the discussion, when Nick Kor of Outfront Minnesota summarized the key points in the bill. I spoke after Nick, followed by a question and answer period.
Quickly, it became clear that the students wanted honest answers about how to handle real-life bullying situations. Nick and I are policy people, and even we kind of looked at each other helplessly. They had tough, specific questions that reflected their experiences and fears, posing questions like, “What can I do if I’m being bullied?” and “How can I help if I see a friend being bullied?” I stammered as I acknowledged that I’m not a trained professional in these matters – that I’m just a legislator. I did, however, point out that one of the very important parts of the bill is that it supports training for school staff. The students’ concerns are great examples of why that training is needed to help kids.
Because the students seemed intent on asking more personal questions about bullying, the moderator stepped in and offered that she’d hold those questions aside to be handled directly by staff at a later time, as she wanted to focus on the policy questions. Whew!
As we concluded the Q&A, the church’s Minister to Families with Students, Amy Fuller, stepped up to talk to the students and offered a very helpful suggestion for kids who witness others being bullied: I.C.I. – Interrupt. Compliment. Invite. Using Nick and I as examples, she demonstrated that if Nick was bullying me, she could walk up to me, interrupt the exchange without acknowledging Nick, compliment my jacket and invite me to join her down the hall to talk about something, pulling me away without confrontation. What a brilliant and simple tool to provide a kid who wants to help!
When Amy handed the microphone back to me, I was so impressed that I had to say, “See? THAT is why we need trained adults handling these issues with our kids!”
And that’s the point – to have authoritative figures use their knowledge, influence and skills to implement strategies that ensure our children’s safety and well-being.
As I stood up there as some sort of an adult authority, I felt completely unprepared to answer the kids’ very real questions. As a mom, a former PTA president, and a legislator who has listened to gripping testimony in hearings, I know how significant and life-altering bullying can be. I’ve learned that even well-meaning adults can unknowingly make a bad situation worse with the wrong advice. Bullying is not merely “teasing,” and an adult suggesting to ignore it is as ineffective as turning the other cheek altogether.
We know that parents and school staff have an obligation to help keep kids safe. So do us legislators.
Minnesota’s current statute on bullying was described by the U.S. Department of Education in 2011 as the “weakest” in the nation. It’s only 37 words long. It does not provide the definitions, guidance and tools that schools need to keep kids safe. I had come to understand this well through my work on the legislation. But until I stood before a church filled with teenagers speaking about dealing with bullying on a daily basis, I did not fully appreciate the significance of what these changes in legislation will really mean to our schools and our kids.
Our children will be the future leaders and innovators here in Minnesota. It is our duty to protect them from unneccessary setbacks – such as the effects of bullying – and to ensure their physical and emotional well-beings. Stronger anti-bullying legislation will do that.