SAINT PAUL, Minn. - Hundreds of students rallied at the State Capitol Monday, urging lawmakers to pass the Safe and Supportive Schools Act, a set a guidelines intended to create uniform anti-bullying policies in schools throughout Minnesota.
Many of those who converged on the Capitol Rotunda had personal stories to tell about being bullied.
"In grade school I was bullied because I was too big and I was different from everybody else," Stephanie Swarthout, a Stillwater High School junior, told KARE.
"I only had one friend, and she was also bullied, so we kind of like stuck together," she said.
Swarthout said she still remembers as a second grader being punched and sat upon by sixth grade girls. She's attended five different schools in her life, trying to escape harassment and bullying. She said she doesn't want her young siblings to suffer what she suffered.
Jie Wronksi-Riley, who now attends Avalon, a charter school in St. Paul, said she did not have the same level of support at her previous schools.
"I personally experienced bullying and it made me feel very unsafe. And I wasn't able to learn, and I didn't want to be in that environment," Wronski-Riley recalled.
"I think school is so important, it's what we need to move forward and progress in life."
Rep. Jim Davnie, the chief author of the House version of the bill, told the youth the effort can't end with raising a ruckus in the Rotunda. He urged them to fan out across the Capitol complex and reach out to individual lawmakers, and let them know how they've been affected by bullying in schools and cyber bullying.
Jaley Shambayati, a student at St. Paul Central, said she knew what she was going to tell any legislator she found.
"It really hurts to see your friends not able to come to school and be with you and learn, because they're literally afraid for their own safety"
The public information campaign in favor of the bill has been publicized by the gay equality organization known as OutFront, which sponsored Monday's rally. But Outfront's director, Monica Meyer, pointed out that the effort has garnered support of a large statewide coalition of teachers groups, disabilities rights advocates, religious leaders and others.
Previous versions of the anti-bullying bill have stalled at the legislature, and one was vetoed by Gov. Tim Pawlenty, over language he felt was divisive. One of the bills provisions lays out some of the typical reasons students are bullied by peers. And several conservative groups, including the Minnesota Family Council, oppose it.
The legislation lists some of the characteristics of children who are typically targeted by bullies, including actual or perceived race, ethnicity, color, religion, national origin, immigration status, gender, age,marital status, familial status, socioeconomic status, physical appearance, sexual orientation, gender identity and expression, academic status, disability, age or being on public assistance.
That has prompted opposition groups to assert that school curriculum will be crafted to explain GLBT sexual orientation, and that children who express religious objections to homosexuality will be labeled as bullies.
"We feel the definition of bullying is too broad and these guidelines could punish students for expressing a viewpoint or a religious belief that doesn't really have anything to do with bullying," Autumn Leva of the Minn. Family Council told KARE.
"And this bill as drafted doesn't protect all students from bullying. It specifically lists out classifications of students who are, apparently, according to the bill proponents more worthy of bullying than others."
The legislation has also encountered resistance from some groups representing superintendents and school board members who see a potential administrative burden on schools, especially provisions that require schools to track bullying cases and report them.
Proponents say that a student's protection from bullying, or level of support from teachers and administrators, shouldn't vary based on where they live.