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  • New York Needs The ‘Dignity For All Students Act’

    by Assemblyman Steven Sanders

    For students to meet their full potential—socially, academically and intellectually—they need to feel safe, not just from violence, but from unchecked teasing or harassment. The Dignity for All Students Act, which I introduced in the Assembly (State Senator Tom Duane is the sponsor in the other house), serves to protect children in public schools from harassment or discrimination, including such acts based on a person’s race, national origin, ethnicity, religion, disability, sex, sexual orientation or gender identity.

    An astonishing number of children in schools have either witnessed, experienced or participated in taunting another child or using derogatory language in reference to that child’s personal background or characteristics. No school should tolerate such incidents.

    The Dignity for All Students Act is not a punitive law, nor is it a bill of rights. What it ensures is that every child in any public school in New York State would be protected from harassment or discrimination directed at students and driven by perceptions of “who they are” and related biases.

    Children can be very cruel. One can see this in a playground or by watching children interact even in family settings. In schools, where as a consequence of intimidation, cruelty or discrimination, children’s education is compromised and they are prevented from full participation in school programs, such acts are both intolerable and deplorable.

    In recent years, the tragic school shootings, Columbine and others, have quite properly generated a heightened response by educators, legislators and police in the form of major violence prevention measures and new criminal laws. Most observers, mental health experts and investigators have noted a pattern in these tragedies where children who commit unspeakable and deadly acts have often themselves, prior to those acts, been taunted for being “different.”

    This is not to say that any teasing, which all children face growing up, transforms every child into a serial killer. But we would be doing our children a grave disservice if we failed to recognize the link between patterns of unchecked harassment in a school and the turmoil or loss of conscience within some children that sometimes turns deadly.

    Children do not have to like each other any more than do adults. In a school, however, acting out to make others uncomfortable, or to intimidate, whether manifested as a racist remark, an homophobic slur, or any other bigoted reference, is simply unacceptable, and every school district must have a strong policy to address this.

    We cannot trust that the dignity of any child will be safeguarded in our schools unless the dignity of every child is valued. #

    Assemblyman Sanders is Chairman, NYS Assembly Education Committee.

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