News

New York anti-bullying bill becomes law

by Michael K. Lavers
National News Editor
Wednesday Sep 8, 2010

On the same day New York City's 1.1 million public school students returned to the classroom, Gov. David Paterson signed a long-awaited anti-bullying bill into law at the LGBT Community Center in lower Manhattan.

The Dignity for All Students Act, which specifically bans harassment and discrimination against students based on their sexual orientation, gender identity and expression, race, color, weight, national origin, ethnicity, religion or disability, requires New York State school districts to adopt anti-bullying policies. The law also mandates each district to appoint at least one staff member in each school to implement anti-bullying techniques and methods. And DASA further mandates administrators report incidents of bullying or bias-based harassment to the New York State Department of Education.

Paterson recalled how he hit a classmate in the face with a metal lunch box after he repeatedly bullied him. He was suspended from recess for a month, but Paterson, who is the country's first legally blind governor, said DASA goes a long way to protect New York State's students from the same bullying he experienced.

"We are going to make sure that whether its expression or non-expression... that every student in this state is going to get an unparalleled opportunity to be educated in an environment that is safe and secure and encouraging their long-term success," he said.

State Sen. Tom Duane, who sponsored DASA in the state Senate, agreed. "This is a huge, huge step for schools throughout New York State," he said.

New York City Council Speaker Christine Quinn; New York City Councilmembers Daniel Dromm and Jimmy Van Bramer; New York City Comptroller John Liu; Ross Levi, executive director of the Empire State Pride Agenda; state Assemblymember Danny O'Donnell, who sponsored the bill in the state Assembly; Donna Lieberman, executive director of the New York Civil Liberties Union; Melissa Sklarz, director of the New York Trans Rights Organization; Michael Mulgrew, president of the United Federation of Teachers; and Pauline Park, chair of the New York Association for Gender Rights Advocacy, were among the elected officials and activists who joined Paterson on stage as he signed DASA into law.

"Children cannot learn if they don't feel safe," said Quinn. "Children cannot walk from one classroom to another classroom in their building and dwell on the test that it is the second classroom if their walk down that hallway was walking the gauntlet. They simply cannot get in their chair and digest what they are being taught, take it in and process it when half of their brain is focused on the fear they have about leaving that seat to go to the cafeteria or to the next classroom."

California, Illinois, Iowa, Maryland, New Jersey, North Carolina, Oregon, Vermont and Washington have anti-bullying laws on the books. Colorado, Maine, Minnesota and the District of Columbia have adopted non-discrimination laws that include LGBT-specific protections for students, but classroom bullying remains a serious problem.

As EDGE previously reported, Massachusetts lawmakers revisited the issue after Carl Joseph Walker-Hoover, an 11-year-old student from Springfield, committed suicide in April 2009. His classmates harassed him because they thought he was gay.

Levi highlighted a Massachusetts Department of Public Health study that found 40 percent of gay, lesbian and bisexual high school students will attempt suicide-compared to 10 percent of their heterosexual classmates.

"Preventing bias-bullying and harassment is literally a matter of life and death," he said.

Ninety-three percent of LGBT students in New York State who responded to the Gay, Lesbian and Straight Education Network's National School Climate Survey in 2007 regularly heard "dyke," "faggot" and other homophobic comments from their classmates. The same study found 91 percent of LGBT students in Texas schools, 74 percent of students in Arizona schools and 97 percent of students in Michigan students experienced identical verbal harassment.

As EDGE previously reported, the New York City Department of Education unveiled a new initiative earlier this year that encouraged school administrators to combat classroom bullying and harassment in the classroom. Officials announced a similar plan at the start of the 2008-2008 academic year, but some activists expressed skepticism-especially after Mayor Michael Bloomberg vetoed the Dignity in All Schools Act the New York City Council overwhelmingly passed in 2004.

Duane, who first introduced DASA in the state Senate shortly after his election in 1999, said its passage is long overdue.

"No student should ever feel afraid to go to school. No student should ever have to try and learn while they are in fear," he added. "No child should have ever live with that, but children's academic performance will improve if they have confidence from their school."

DASA is scheduled to take effect on July 1, 2012.

Based in Washington, D.C., Michael K. Lavers has appeared in the New York Times, BBC, WNYC, Huffington Post, Village Voice, Advocate and other mainstream and LGBT media outlets. He is an unapologetic political junkie who thoroughly enjoys living inside the Beltway.


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