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Minnesota gay rights groups now focus on anti-bullying bill

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Long before gay rights activists in Minnesota launched a successful campaign to legalize same-sex marriage, they were aiming for another high-profile goal: a state law protecting children from school bullies. Backers of a bill dubbed the "Safe and Supportive Schools Act" think 2014 is finally their year, the Associated Press reports.

OutFront Minnesota, one of the main political forces behind last year's same-sex marriage law, is holding a rally and lobby day at the Capitol Monday, as well as a day-long Youth Summit, to encourage lawmakers to support the anti-bullying bill.

The House passed the bill last May on a party-line vote, but the prospects for passage in the Senate are less certain. Supporters are pushing hard this year because both chambers are controlled by DFLers, and the balance of power in the Legislature could shift after the November election.

"I don't think we're going to see one" Republican vote in the Senate, Sen. Scott Dibble, DFL-Minneapolis, lead Senate sponsor of the gay marriage bill and the bullying bill, said, according to the AP.

Minnesota's current bullying law, considered one of the weakest in the country, is only 37 words long.

"Each school board shall adopt a written policy prohibiting intimidation and bullying of any student. The policy shall address intimidation and bullying in all forms, including, but not limited to, electronic forms and forms involving Internet use."

It doesn't contain any requirements of what those policies should include. It has no requirement that districts enforce bullying policies, or track the number of students who report they've been bullied. A 2011 investigation by MPR News revealed that Minnesota's school districts handle bullying inconsistently, and some districts have very little on the books in terms of a bullying policy.

The bill under consideration in the Legislature would require all Minnesota school districts to develop and enforce a plan to reduce bullying. School employees and volunteers would be trained to spot bullying and be required to "make a reasonable effort to address and resolve the prohibited conduct."

The debate is following some of the same cultural divides as the gay marriage debate, according to the AP.

Social conservatives worry some students could get labeled bullies for expressing religious views. But the bill is also opposed by groups representing school superintendents, school board members and rural school districts, who think the state is overreaching.

Grace Keliher, lobbyist for the Minnesota School Boards Association, told the AP school board members are concerned about several items in the bill, including what some feel is an overly broad definition of bullying; the lack of an appeals process for students deemed bullies; and training requirements that could be costly if applied to many thousands of school volunteers around the state.

Despite emotional appeals from bullying victims, some opponents say the state can't, and shouldn't, legislate what's appropriate behavior in Minnesota schools.

Sen. Branden Peterson, of Andover, was the only Senate Republican to vote last year to pass same-sex marriage. But he won't cross party lines on the bullying bill.

"At a certain point, we've got to recognize as a society that the state cannot mandate whether or not an 8-year-old calls another 8-year-old fat," Petersen said. "It's almost, I don't want to say arrogant, but it kind of is to think the state has that kind of power."

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