September 2010 Issue
August 22, 2010

Battling back against bullying

Author: Liza Frenette
Source: NYSUT United

Bullying is about to get some pushback.

A new measure — the Dignity for All Students Act (DASA) — will further protect students who are harassed, discriminated against, intimidated, abused or verbally threatened in any severe or pervasive way.

DASA is the direct result of relentless advocacy by NYSUT and its social justice partners. It requires New York's public schools to create an environment of understanding, where it's not OK to call someone "faggot" or "fatass."

"When you put it in writing it's a lot more powerful," said Diane Gonzalez, East Ramapo middlelevel science teacher, a member of NYSUT's Civil Rights Committee and a National Education Association anti-bullying trainer.

More importantly, students in this new environment will learn why it is not OK to use derogatory names, and what damage it can cause to another. "DASA will force schools to open up that discussion," said Gonzalez.

The act amends state education law to protect public school students from verbal threats, intimidation or abuse based on categories including race, color, national origin, ethnicity, religion, religious practice, weight, disability, sexual orientation, gender and sex. Victims of bullying are more likely to underperform in school, skip classes, act out or drop out.

Some join gangs for fear of bullying.

Some consequences are irreversible: The term "bullycide" is now part of the lexicon that defines the act of suicide as a result of intense, continuous bullying.

"From Georgia to New Hampshire to Brooklyn, there are 11-year-old kids who have taken their lives because they can't take bullying," said Gonzalez, a member of the East Ramapo Teachers Association.

"What I find the most difficult to deal with in this issue is that bullying often is dished out in small doses over great periods of time," said Juliet Benaquisto, a 22-year middle school teacher and president of the Schenectady Federation of Teachers — a district distraught over four suicides linked to bullying last year.

"Bullying may not have been the sole factor in these suicides, but they are a painful reminder of how vulnerable many of our students are," she said.

Under DASA, teachers and staff will be trained to address harassment and discrimination. They will be required to monitor and report incidents.

"If this legislation helps to define behaviors that will no longer be accepted and will allow for greater consequences, then we will go a long way in improving things for our students," Benaquisto believes.

Gonzalez said some districts fear interference with teaching's already-tight curriculum.

"You can't afford not to teach it," Gonzalez counters, explaining that students obsessed about being harassed are likely unable to pay attention in class.

"It's like the kid who shows up at school without breakfast and all they can think about is how hungry they are," she said.

One out of every five students will experience some form of bullying during their middle school years, according to the Cyberbullying Research Center.

"What now goes on in online social networks is truly ratcheting up the situation since comments online are permanent and that much more damaging," said Benaquisto.

East Ramapo has a host of examples other locals can mirror to integrate acceptance.

  • Teachers can use pre-created homework and classroom assignments that utilize 40 different character traits to prompt student involvement.
  • Each department chooses several character traits, such as responsibility, integrity and reliability, to weave into classroom instruction.
  • At "Mix-it-Up-Day" students must sit at different tables at lunch, with a teacher at each table to initiate conversation.
  • All seventh-graders read for English class The Misfits by James Howe. It explores the impact of name-calling.

"The goal is not to be punitive in nature, but to work with students and educate them as to the differences among people," said NYSUT Vice President Kathleen Donahue. Her office oversees health and safety issues.

NYSUT's Health Care Professionals Council and School-Related Professionals, along with teachers, have been addressing the issue of bullying in schools and devising strategies about how educators can be more effective in stopping bullying before it starts, Donahue said.

Last December, NYSUT cohosted a conference on bullying in which members received practical information and models for creating safe schools. Bullying's impact on gay students also has been highlighted in education initiatives led by NYSUT Secretary-Treasurer Lee Cutler.

Once Gov. Paterson signs DASA as expected later this month, New York will become the 43rd state in the nation to enact measures against bullying. The act takes effect in 2012.

Other measures of the legislation would require schools to:

  • Adopt policies to make them harassment- and discrimination-free;
  • Inform students and parents of policies;
  • Create guidelines to develop nondiscriminatory instruction and counseling;
  • Incorporate discrimination and harassment awareness and sensitivity into civility, citizenship and character education curricula;
  • Provide a staff member trained in human-relations counseling; and
  • Provide direction and model policies to districts, which SED is now undertaking through its task force.

First-year costs to implement the law are estimated at $270,600 for training, with zero costs projected thereafter. The breakdown is a modest $300 for each of the state's 694 districts, 171 charter schools and 37 BOCES, according to SED.

Some programs are already in place under another NYSUT initiative — Project SAVE, the Safe Schools Against Violence in Education act that passed in 2000.