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When a two-year legislative battle for a more detailed anti-bullying law ended early this morning, school officials in Minnesota knew they had work to do.

Minnesota's current anti-bullying law only requires that schools have a bullying policy, but doesn't give guidance on what should be in the policy.

But that will change now that the DFL-sponsored measure passed, largely on a party-line vote, after a 12-hour House floor debate. The state will require districts to spell out how exactly they'll protect students from intimidating, threatening, abusive or harmful behavior, and how they'll track and respond to cases of bullying.

This afternoon, on the steps of the State Capitol this, Gov. Mark Dayton signed the bill, which replaces the current 37-word law with language that supporters say will ensure districts across the state have consistent and effective anti-bullying policies.

"It's not only to provide the kind of academic excellence our young people are going to need, it's to provide the kind of emotional, maturational experiences and guidance that they're going to need to be successful in their lives, to be successful in this society, to be successful in this world," Dayton said.

Schools try to decipher law

The law goes into effect next school year, but school administrators are already trying to determine just how the law will change their approach to bullying cases.

That likely won't be easy because the new law doesn't specifically tell districts how to move forward with those efforts, appearing to leave some wiggle room on their approach to bullying.

"I'd like to think this isn't going to change the way we do business a whole lot, but we have to take a look at the details," said Rick Lahn, superintendent of the Alexandria school district.

Lahn said his district already investigates and tracks cases of bullying, a mandate of the new law. But he's not sure how much new paperwork will be required.

The law requires every school building in the state to assign at least one employee to receive reports of bullying. Investigations into those incidents need to begin within three days.

"There will be some secretaries involved with some of the record keeping and data recording and we'll find a way to get it done," Lahn said.

The state won't provide money for schools to implement the law, prompting critics to call it an expensive unfunded mandate.

Although some of the reporting requirements in the bill were eased this session, and many of the law's requirements are already in place in schools, administrators across the state think that should ease the law's bureaucratic burden.

The St. Paul district is working out how best to respond to bullying under the law, a process that actually began with a new district anti-bullying policy in 2012.

Ryan Vernosh, policy and planning administrator for the district, said he's collecting best practices from each of the district's schools, and will combine them into a new approach.

"We're looking at what we're going to do in terms of an inquiry procedure for when a report of bullying takes place in a school," he said. "We're going to give guidance to building leaders on the process to go to through with that."

Vernosh said he thinks the district already meets the law's requirements. But he said the finer points on how the district will comply with the law are still being ironed out.

No more automatic punishments

Even though the law doesn't detail exactly how districts should respond to bullying, it does require them to include restorative practices.

That involves working with students accused of bullying to get at the root cause of their behavior, instead of automatically turning to suspensions or other punitive approaches.

Walter Roberts, who co-chaired a state task force on bullying in 2012, said many of the group's recommendations, including using restorative measures, became part of the new law.

"This is about helping kids learn how to manage their own behavior and the only way we're going to get to that point is if we take the time to help kids learn new ways of behavior," he said.

The new law also defines bullying, bringing a bit more clarity to exactly what behavior school officials need to watch for.

Under its provisions, a one-time incident isn't automatically considered bullying. The behavior generally has to be repeated, and include a so-called "imbalance of power" between the students involved.

That will help filter out incidents that shouldn't necessarily be considered bullying, Northfield superintendent Chris Richardson said.

"It's the idea that you have two third graders on the playground and one gets to the jungle gym first and pushes in front of the other student that's really not bullying," Richardson said.

Another mandate in the new law will be training.

Schools will need to train their entire staff, from teachers and coaches to cafeteria workers and bus drivers, on how to spot and prevent bullying.

But as with other key provisions in the law, the state won't require what's in the training, only that it takes place every three years.

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