November 2011 Issue
October 25, 2011

Dignity, not bullying

Author: Jacquelyn Hadam, Associate Counsel
Source: NYSUT United

October was National Bullying Prevention month, a time to reflect on bullying in our schools and make a commitment to be a part of the solution to end any kind of harassment. Now it's also important to identify legal protections (both federal and state) for students and whistleblowers.

The National Education Association estimates that 160,000 children miss school every day due to fear of attack or intimidation by other students.

Bullying is traditionally understood to include older, bigger students beating up younger, smaller students, but bullying can include other, more nuanced behaviors. For example, subtle and quiet peer pressure can turn into bullying when it causes emotional damage.

According to the U.S. Department of Education, some of the possible effects of student-on-student harassment and bullying include: lowered academic achievement and aspirations, increased anxiety, loss of self-esteem and confidence, depression and post traumatic stress, general deterioration in physical health, feelings of alienation in the school environment, absenteeism, self-harm and suicidal thinking and, most tragically, even death.

Intuitively, we know that bullying in schools can impact students long after they complete their education. An eye-opening study, "Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender Adolescent School Victimization: Implications for Young Adult Health and Adjustment" published in the Journal of School Health, documents the turmoil suffered by lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and questioning (LGBTQ) students who are bullied. In fact, the study found that LGBTQ students can suffer from various health and mental health problems for a decade or more after high school.

To prevent or lessen these significant impacts, federal and state laws protect students from harassment. Harassment is the creation of a hostile environment as the result of undesirable behaviors directed at a protected class.

Federal law protects students from harassment where the conduct is based on race, color, national origin, sex, disability or religion, and is serious enough to create a hostile environment. The federal education department's Office for Civil Rights oversees the enforcement of these anti-discrimination/anti-harassment laws and ensures that school districts take the necessary steps to address isolated incidents of harassment, and to uproot and prevent the creation or continuation of hostile school environments.

At the state level, the Legislature in 2010 adopted the Dignity for All Students Act. The act is the direct result of relentless advocacy by NYSUT and its social justice partners.

The act builds upon Project SAVE, formerly known as the Safe Schools Against Violence in Education Act, by targeting discrimination and harassment in public schools. Its aim is to foster a learning environment in all public schools that is free from harassment and discrimination by expanding the class of individuals currently protected under federal law. The Dignity Act takes effect July 1, 2012.

Dignity Act highlights

  • The Dignity Act prohibits harassment and discrimination of individuals on school property or at a school function based upon a person's actual or perceived race, color, weight, national origin, ethnic group, religion, religious practice, disability, sexual orientation, gender or sex.
  • Boards of education are required to amend their codes of conduct to reflect the legislative policy of the act and must provide a summary to all students. Notably, the means of enforcing the provisions of the revised codes of conduct that impact our members are mandatory subjects of negotiation.
  • Boards of education also must create policies and guidelines that align with the overall purpose of the statute.
  • The Dignity Act requires school programs that discourage the undesirable behavior and conduct, as well as enable employees to prevent and respond to discrimination and harassment, through guidelines developed for the programs.
  • Each school must have one staff member thoroughly trained to handle sensitive issues of harassment and discrimination.
  • The Commissioner of Education is required to provide direction policies to school districts, provide grants and promulgate regulations, all of which will assist school districts in implementing the act.
  • A school district is required to report material incidents of discrimination and harassment to the Commissioner.
  • The law provides civil immunity for persons who report discrimination and/or harassment if the individual has "reasonable cause" to suspect that harassment or discrimination has occurred and when that person acted "reasonably and in good faith" in making a report to school officials, to the Commissioner or to law enforcement.
  • The Dignity Act prohibits retaliation against an individual who assists in an investigation.