The Dignity for All Students Act now has more muscle. Amendments effective July 2013 require a designated school official and, if necessary, police to address incidents of cyberbullying - insults, taunting and threats made online toward a student - even if they originate off school grounds.
Any electronic communication that would cause a student to fear for his/her physical safety, emotional well-being or educational performance is now included in the definition of bullying and the shadow it casts. If such actions create or could create a risk of significant disruption within the school environment, it is under the jurisdiction of the Dignity Act. Consequences should be included in each school district's Code of Conduct, and could include coordination with law enforcement.
"The Dignity Act doesn't take us off the hook to look at overall school atmosphere," said Lee Cutler, secretary-treasurer of NYSUT who oversees social justice issues. Students and school employees working together on inclusion, acceptance and alternative behavior to bullying can change behaviors, he said.
Beginning this school year, the Dignity Act will require student instruction in bullying, cyberbullying and safe and responsible use of the Internet. The provision builds on character education programs by expanding the concepts of tolerance and respect.
The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reports nearly 16 percent of high school students have been bullied; in middle school those numbers rise to 26 percent of students. Victims were more than three times as likely as those not bullied to report considering suicide.
Cheryl Hughes, a middle school science teacher and member of the Kenmore Teachers Association, said one of her students went on home instruction because of bullying. Hughes has introduced ongoing conversations with students about bullying, using lesson plans from Speak Truth to Power, Teaching Tolerance and the documentary Bullied. She reads students a quote every day about how they can impact others. Anti-bullying programs need to come from the students themselves in order to work, she said.
The heart of the Dignity Act is to get underneath the climate of the school to make it more welcoming, said Anthony Pantaleno, an Elwood Teacher Alliance member who was recently named national School Psychologist of the Year. "The Dignity Act is not about making more effective suspension procedures."
Since July 2012, schools have been required to designate a Dignity Act coordinator.
Coordinators in the Long Island area have been participating in regional training through BOCES and the Long Island Social Emotional Learning Forum, which for years has been working with districts to offer programs that help students change limiting attitudes. "When the Dignity Act hit the books, it fit like a glove," Pantaleno said.
As NYSUT United went to press, the State Education Department was seeking a legislative extension on new anti-bullying instruction courses that will be required for certification.
School employees should have received instruction on how to deal with reports of bullying. Reports about violations of the Dignity Act are due from schools to SED between Aug. 19 and Sept. 22.
The Dignity Act prohibits harassment, bullying and discrimination based on but not limited to a person's race, color, weight, national origin, ethnicity, religion, disability, sexual orientation or gender. It prohibits discrimination against any student, by employees or students, that creates a hostile environment by threats, intimidation or abuse.
To access anti-bullying resources, go to www.nysut.org/factsheets and scroll down to "Resources for the Implementation of the Dignity Act."
For more information about the six-hour required Dignity Act course, visit www.highered.nysed.gov/tcert/certificate/dasaprovider.html.