On a sunny spring day last April on the steps of the state capitol, Minnesota Governor Mark Dayton signed the Safe and Supportive Minnesota Schools Act into law. Of the many speakers at the ceremony, the crowd cheered the loudest for 11-year-old Jake Ross. Bullied mercilessly while in second grade, Jake turned his hurt into action and became a tireless advocate for toughening up his state’s anti-bullying law, one of the weakest in the nation.
The Safe and Supportive Minnesota Schools Act is a comprehensive anti-bullying bill that will require all schools in the state to have an anti-bullying policy that clearly defines bullying, harassment, and intimidation, provides training and resources for students, staff, and volunteers and lays out specific procedures school staff must follow when bullying is reported.
To mark National Bullying Prevention Awareness Month, Jake recently told his story to NEA Today, detailing his personal struggle as a bullying victim and why he believes the new law in his state will help reduce the problem.
When I was 7 years old and in 2nd grade I was the victim of on-going and repeated bullying at the elementary school I attended. The bullying included physical harm, verbal threats, intimidation, and stealing.
One of the worst incidents was during lunch and recess on February 2, 2010. While I was eating lunch at our assigned classroom table in the cafeteria, one of the bullying students stood up at the lunch table and said very loudly, ‘Who’s going to help me beat up Jake today ?!’
Following lunch, outside at recess I was cornered and attacked. I was pushed to the ground repeatedly. I tried to get away, but I could not. When the recess whistle finally blew and everyone went inside the school, the student who attacked me yelled, “I’m going to kill you if you tell anyone! I’m going to kill you tomorrow!” This made me feel scared because I was afraid that he might try to seriously injure me the next day. I was scared for many more days following this attack, and I was scared about what was going to happen to me next at school…
My mom was really worried about me at school, too. She ate lunch with me and came to recess. I told her about the harm that was happening to me at school, and she reported these things to the school officials. The only consequence for the two students who hurt me repeatedly was that they had to apologize – even though the bullying continued through the end of the school year. My mom asked the school official to have the students moved to a different assigned table area in the cafeteria – the bullying usually happening at lunch and recess – but the answer was no. They told us they couldn’t because they had to think about the kids the bullies would then be sitting by. Because of this, I had to sit by the students who bullied me every day.
My mom had a meeting with the school officials and asked to see the school’s policy and procedures for bullying. The school official told her that there were no procedures and no list of consequences for bullying at the school.
Because it would not provide a safe learning environment for me, my parents took me and my younger sister out of this school.
I quickly learned how common bullying is for so many students and I became involved in anti-bullying awareness. I know what it’s like, and I didn’t want it to happen to any more kids. All kid deserve to be safe from bullying.
My role in advocating for the Safe and Supportive Minnesota Schools Act was as a spokesperson for children and youth who have been bullied in schools. I publically told my story of having been bullied, lobbied at the Minnesota State Capitol during the 2013 and 2014 legislative sessions and testified in favor of the bill at committee hearings. I have been fortunate to get to know Senator Scott Dibble, who co-sponsored the Safe and Supportive Schools Act. He is a role mode for me. I also wrote newspaper guest commentary articles and letters-to-the-editor on “Why I support the Safe and Supportive Minnesota Schools Act.” These were published in our local newspapers. I also collected over 500 petition signatures in support of the bill. At local community events, I provided information about the bill. I am still involved in advocating for the law and its implementation in schools.
The Safe and Supportive Schools Act will help protect students from bullying by changing the idea that bullying is “just something that happens to kids” to bullying is something that hurts kids and it is not acceptable. This new law creates the mindset that schools should be safe and inviting places for all students, and that all students are accepted and valued.
I think the best parts of the new law are the enumerated protections and the use of restorative justice practices.
Enumerated protection is important because it protects those students who are likely to be bullied more often and more severely. It sends the message that it’s not O.K. to bully anyone, even if they are different from you.
Restorative justice practices are an important part because punishing the bully without teaching anything will not help stop the behavior over the long term. The bully may continue the hurtful behavior throughout their school years and into their adult years.
Restorative Justice helps all those involved in bullying situations by getting to the reason why the bullying happened, and coming to an agreement that helps everyone stop the harmful behavior and repair the harm that was done, so healing can happen. All those involved, including the people harmed, witnesses, the harm-doer, community members, etc. come together and use a process that works through the problem and reaches a consensus at the end that all agree to. This is how bullying situations can be dealt with in a way that actually puts an end to the harm.
I would tell three main things to kids who are being bullied. First, know that it is not your fault. No one should blame you for the harm that is happening to you. Bullying is a form of abuse, and anyone who is being abused needs help from others. Second, tell a trusted adult about the bullying. This could be your parent, other caring adult in your life, a teacher, coach, church youth leader. Finally, hang around with other students who are nice as much as you can.
Video: Jake Ross at Safe Schools Bill Signing