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New York City
March 2002

Assembly Against School Bullies
By Assemblyman Steven Sanders

The Dignity for All Students Act, landmark legislation which I introduced in the Assembly to prohibit discrimination or harassment of students and to prevent bullying in public schools, has been reported out of the Education, Codes, and Ways & Means CommGttees in the Assembly. A full vote in the Assembly is expected soon.

Two years ago, the State Legislature took an important step toward preventing violence in schools with enactment of the landmark Project SAVE. Dignity for All Students is a logical and much needed next step, since bullying, taunting, intimidation and harassment—including bias-driven harassment—are very often precursors to violence. But, even without the relationship to violence, they have no place in a school at any time. Dignity for All Students will help foster civility in every public school by providing for an environment that is conducive to learning, free of harassment and free of discrimination.

The bill states that such acts are to be prohibited, including when based on a persons actual or perceived race, color, national origin, ethnic group, religion, religious practice, disability, sexual orientation, gender, or sex.

People are targeted sometimes as a result of world or local events. Just recently, Arab-American students suffered terrible abuse in the wake of September 11th. And all students, whether gay or straight, are negatively effected by anti-gay harassment—one of the most common forms of in-school harassment, with the average high school student hearing anti-gay epithets 25 times a day.

According to the Empire State Pride Agenda, gay and lesbian students—and those perceived to be lesbian or gay, in particular—are the victims of severe and widespread discrimination and harassment in our public schools. Ninety percent of lesbian and gay youth regularly hear homophobic remarks in school, with almost half saying they experienced verbal harassment daily. A 1993, 14-city study of lesbian and gay youth ages 14-21 found that 44 percent were threatened with physical attack, 33 percent had objects thrown at them, 30 percent were chased or followed and 17 percent were physically assaulted. Most alarmingly, one third of the youth surveyed reported that no one, not even teachers or administrators, intervened in these circumstances. It may come as a shock that New York State Education Law does not contain any explicit prohibition against harassment of any kind in primary or secondary education. While some New York localities have passed anti-discrimination and harassment policies for their schools, there is no comprehensive statewide protection from harassment in schools under New York State law.

In order to concentrate on their academic and personal growth, students need a safe and non-threatening school environment. They should never have to be preoccupied by the threat or actual occurrence of harassment or discrimination, be it verbal or physical, either from school employees or fellow students.

The bill would promote civility among students and between students and teachers. It will also help create an atmosphere where learning is paramount and distractions to learning are minimized–more important than ever as we expect students to meet higher standards and pass high-stakes tests. The bill provides a response to the large numbers of harassed and stigmatized students skipping school and engaging in high-risk behaviors like drug use, alcohol abuse, and perhaps even suicide.

No child or teen should ever be pushed to such extremes because of an intolerable environment in his or her school. By prohibiting harassment in public schools and establishing the appropriate procedures and policies to prevent and deal with such incidents, the bill will be a major step in creating more nurturing environments in all our schools.

The bill is not punitive in focus. It certainly doesn’t require that everybody “like” each other. Dignity’s focus is on learning, about keeping an environment in a school civil and conducive to learning, where no student should be expected to have to endure bullying, intimidation or harassment based on personal characteristics, real or perceived.

Our principals need Dignity for All Students so that a school building can be a non-threatening place. Our teachers need this, to ensure the right climate for learning—in every classroom.

But most of all, our students need this bill. We demand a lot from them, and that is correct. And true, the world is a rough place. But schools shouldn’t be. Let’s provide our young people with the safety and the security they need to succeed in school and beyond. Dignity for All Students can make that possible.

Steven Sanders is Chairman of the Assembly Education Committee. He can be reached at (212) 979-9696 or by E-mail at sanders@assembly.state.ny.us.


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