New York State Passes Anti-Bullying Law

by Kilian Melloy

EDGE Staff Reporter

Wednesday June 23, 2010

The New York state senate has passed a measure to combat bullying in public schools. The state senate passed the bill, called the Dignity for All Students Act, with bipartisan support and by an overwhelming margin of 58-3. The state assembly had passed the measure in May, with a similarly definitive margin of 138-4. The measure's lead sponsors were state Sen. Thomas Duane and Assembly Member Daniel O'Donnell.

The bill penalizes bullying motivated by bias on a number of fronts, from weight to gender to sexual identity and expression. The bill also covers race, religion, national origin, and disability. The measure also mandates development of policies to prevent and to deal with bias-motivated school violence and hate, training for school staff and administrators, and the introduction of appropriate material into classroom curricula, including discrimination awareness. The bill also requires that incidents of bias-motivated bullying be reported to the state education department.

"No student should have to fear for his or her safety while trying to learn in school," Ross Levi, the executive director of GLBT advocacy group Empire State Pride Agenda, said. "We are glad that both chambers of the legislature have come together and joined the other states that have passed measures like this important piece of legislation. We call on the Governor to sign this bill into law so that public schools will be able to provide more effective protections from bullying and violence to students who differences make them frequent targets."

Levi praised lawmakers for including transgender youth in the bill. "We thank the Legislature for passing the first-ever state law that includes protections based on gender identity and expression," Levi said. "This significant law will now protect some of our community's most vulnerable members--transgender youth for whom unsafe schools can be the beginning of a lifetime of marginalization that can include health issues and even homelessness. The Dignity bill is an important first step in protecting all transgender New Yorkers."

A release from the Transgender Legal Defense & Education Fund cited a Gay Lesbian Straight Education Network (GLSEN) study's results. "Lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender students in New York face tremendous amounts of bullying and harassment," the release said. "One recent survey conducted by GLSEN found that 79% had been verbally harassed in the past year because of their sexual orientation and 62% had been verbally harassed because of how they expressed their gender."

The Empire State Pride Agenda release also cited a GLSEN study that indicated that a third of GLTB students feel so unsafe at school that they skip classes at least once per month. Only 4.5% of straight students reported such behavior. Similarly, a study undertaken by the Massachusetts Department of Public Health showed that the rate for attempted suicide among GLBT youth was 40%--as opposed to 10% for straight youths.

"Twelve states and D.C. have passed measures that explicitly prohibit bias harassment and bullying based on sexual orientation and gender identity and expression, including: California, Oregon, Washington, Colorado, Minnesota, Iowa, Illinois, North Carolina, Maryland, New Jersey, Vermont and Maine," the release stated. "Three additional states have safe schools laws designed to protect students based upon sexual orientation: Wisconsin, Massachusetts and Connecticut.

"Scores of localities in New York State have already implemented anti-bias measures in their schools, including: Albany, Buffalo, East Hampton, Heuvelton, New York City, Rochester, Yonkers and Saratoga Springs," the release added.

An Empire State Pride Agenda press release noted that the state assembly had passed such legislation nine times. This was the first time the state senate had passed such a bill, however.

New York City Council Speaker Christine Quinn issued a statement on the bill's approval by state lawmakers, calling it "a great victory for New York." Added Quinn, "This will give New York State the tools is needs to finally address the problem of bullying and bias-based harassment in our schools.

"A school environment free of bullying and harassment is essential to the academic success of every child," the speaker continued. "No young person should fear going to school because of who he or she is, or is perceived to be."

The speaker went on to add, "Going forward, we will use the tools that this bill provides to combat bullying in all forms, among all our youth."

A similar bill--though one that lacked specific language regarding LGBT youth--was signed into law last month by Massachusetts Governor Deval Patrick. Although the bill does not specifically extend protections to GLBT youth, safe school advocates expressed the hope that the bill, if "implemented and enforced correctly," would protect sexual minorities.

The nation's patchwork of laws regarding the bullying of youthful LGBTs could be standardized if federal lawmakers pass a bill introduced last month by Minnesota Democratic Sen. Al Franken.

"Our nation's civil rights laws protect our children from bullying due to race, sex, religion, disability and national origin," noted Franken. "My proposal corrects a glaring injustice and extends these protections to our gay and lesbian students who need them just as badly."

In addition to criminalizing anti-gay harassment and violence at school, the bill provides penalties for schools that do nothing when its students are being bullied. Under the bill's provisions, standing by and doing nothing while GLBT kids are attacked will mean a loss of federal funds. The bill also forbids discrimination by the schools themselves. Franken's measure has garnered the support of 22 co-sponsors.

Kilian Melloy serves as EDGE Media Network's Associate Arts Editor and Staff Contributor. His professional memberships include the National Lesbian & Gay Journalists Association, the Boston Online Film Critics Association, The Gay and Lesbian Entertainment Critics Association, and the Boston Theater Critics Association's Elliot Norton Awards Committee.