NYSUT demands law to curb bullying in schools
"These are only the heartbreaking headlines that have caught our attention," said NYSUT President Dick Iannuzzi. "We know that there are many more students whose stories don't make the headlines."
Bullying is blamed in at least two of the four recent suicides that have occurred at Schenectady High School located outside Albany, New York. Last month, 11-year-old Carl Joseph Walker-Hoover from Springfield, Mass. hanged himself at home after teasing turned to torment, and cyberbullying has added a whole new dimension to the epidemic of bullying. Thirteen year old Megan Meier killed herself after being bullied through the networking Web site MySpace.
Calling for state lawmakers to stop delaying action, NYSUT is urgently pushing for enactment of the Dignity for All Students Act. It would require schools to develop clear anti-harassment policies, report incidents, provide staff training and promote respect for diversity.
NYSUT, which is planning an anti-bullying conference in the upcoming school year, considers the issue front and center in the union's social justice agenda.
"We view bullying as a civil and human rights issue," said NYSUT Secretary-Treasurer Lee Cutler. "It impacts all our students and their ability to learn."
Cutler, who coordinates the union's social justice work, said he was proud that NYSUT's recent annual convention featured a riveting presentation by Kevin Jennings, founder of the Gay, Lesbian and Straight Education Network, who sounded the alarm for educators everywhere to work together to create a school climate of respect for all.
Jennings showed statistics demonstrating rampant bullying and harassment of students, which in turn can lead to academic problems, absenteeism, drug use and suicide.
"This is at its heart an academic issue," Jennings said. "If bullying happens, we can't do our job ... and students don't get the education they deserve."
Looks, sexual orientation and gender expression are the top reasons students are bullied, called names or harassed in New York's schools, Jennings said.
National polls show at least 6 percent of all high school students define themselves as gay, Jennings noted. That's a conservative number, since many students would be hesitant to disclose that information to a pollster.
"You may not know who they are," Jennings said. "But that means at least one out of 16 kids, or at least one gay student in every classroom."
Jennings said schools can create a safer and more inclusive climate by having clear disciplinary policies, providing training and support, and allowing clubs that foster diversity.
"They need supportive teachers," Jennings said. "Teachers really can make a difference."
Sixty percent of gay students said they never reported harassment. "They tell us if they know we'll do something," Jennings said. "That's why this legislation and backing of administration are crucial."
As the new Democratic majority in the state Senate takes up initiatives that have never made it to the floor before, Cutler said the time is ripe to push for the Dignity for All Students Act.
During NYSUT's recent Committee of 100, union activists from around the state urged lawmakers not to leave town this session without passing the dignity bill. "We have troubled children and need to be there for them," said Rochester TA's Sharon Silvio.
Neighboring Massachusetts, Connecticut, Vermont and New Jersey have passed similar laws.
Jennings said the Dignity for All Students Act would help create a healthier school climate that breeds respect for all, not just gay students.
"There are lots of closets in our schools, for all the kids who feel marginalized," Jennings said. "The girls who are throwing up their lunches and the kids who think they're stupid ... We need to create a school where every kid can come out of the closet. Once you do, you'll see how much more energy they have for history, French and even the math lesson."
In 2001, the NYS Assembly first passed the Dignity for all Students Act (DASA). Nine years later, this important piece of legislation, one that will serve to protect children in New York State's public education system, still needs approval from the Senate.
The Dignity for All Students Act (A02634 & S01628), sponsored by Assembly Education Committee Chair Steve Sanders and Senator Tom Duane, would serve to protect children in public schools throughout New York State from harassment or discrimination, including such acts based on a person's actual or perceived race, national origin, ethnicity, religion, disability, sex, sexual orientation or gender identity.
NYSUT is urging New Yorker's to:
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North Tonawanda, New York, United States