LAW & EDUCATION
Bullying: Is it about to disappear?
Although not among my fondest memories, when I was growing up, being occasionally bullied was a way of life until high school, and we were required to learn to deal with it — which each of us did in our own way and without school intervention.
Since then, the federal government has enacted a number of civil rights laws, enforced by the U.S. Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights, which prohibit certain types of discrimination.
Then, in 1980, New York State passed the “Project SAVE, Safe Schools Against Violence in Education Act,” which became fully effective in 2001. It focused on acts of violence and required New York State public schools to instruct students on the principles of “honesty, tolerance, personal responsibility, respect for others, observance of laws and rules, courtesy, dignity and other traits which will enhance the quality of their experiences in, and contributions to, the community”.
However, it was not until September 2010 that New York State finally adopted the “Dignity for All Students Act” (commonly known as the “Dignity Act”), which became effective July 1, 2012 and declared that it is “the policy of the state to afford all students in public schools an environment free of discrimination and harassment.”
The Dignity Act provides that “no student shall be subjected to harassment by employees or students on school property or at a school function; nor shall any student be subjected to discrimination based on a person’s actual or perceived race, color, weight, national origin, ethnic group, religion, religious practice, disability, sexual orientation, gender, or sex by school employees or students on school property or at a school function.”
The Dignity Act not only reflects New York State’s policy, but it also charges each school district with the obligation to create pro-active policies and guidelines to create a proper school environment and train school employees to implement such policies and guidelines. To ensure that school districts had time to effect such policies and guidelines, the Dignity Act intentionally deferred its effectiveness until now. Lastly, and as an aid to its enforcement, the Dignity Act gives “whistle-blower” protection to any student or school employee who, in good faith, reports an incident of harassment or initiates remedial action.
An act of discrimination that violates the Federal law (and violations may have a Federal reporting requirement) will violate the Dignity Act, but the Dignity Act is broader, and is intended to not only terminate harassing activities at school but to educate students to eliminate such behavior.
The Dignity Act only pertains to acts on school property, in a school bus or at a school function, and does not regulate activities without an appropriate school nexus. However, with education and increased awareness, it is expected that verbal and physical intimidation of children by their peers will continue to decrease
Will the Dignity Act accomplish its broad goals? Hopefully it will, but only time will tell. Unfortunately, the Dignity Act only pertains only to public schools, so that parochial and other private New York schools are exempt from its provisions. The hope is that community and parental pressures will have such schools voluntarily adopt dignity and anti-harassment guidelines and policies similar to those now required of the public schools.