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Column: Why Are Charter Schools Exempt from Bullying Law? (New York Times School Book Blog)

By Udi Ofer

New York State’s heralded anti-bullying law is about to go into effect July 1. But the state Board of Regents recently took some teeth out of the law, known as the Dignity Act, when it said that charter schools don’t have to provide in-class instruction to schoolchildren about the dangers of discrimination and harassment, leaving their students without a key protection from bullying.

The Regents should overturn this decision and ensure that all children, no matter where they go to school, are aware of the problems of discrimination and harassment and are protected from bullies.

We all know bullying is a serious problem, and the wide release on Friday of the documentary “Bully” is likely to provoke even more discussion. The New York Civil Liberties Union (NYCLU) regularly receives calls from panicked parents and terrified students who don’t know where else to turn for help.

In addition to missing classes, bullied students can suffer from anxiety and an inability to complete their school work. Untreated bullying contributes to a toxic school climate, which then leads to high absenteeism among students, lower grades and test scores, and a general feeling of disengagement with the school.

Students from vulnerable communities are particularly susceptible to bullying. A 2009 survey found that nearly nine out of 10 lesbian, gay, bisexual or transgender students experienced harassment at school, and nearly two-thirds felt unsafe because of their sexual orientation. Muslim and Sikh students have reported similar experiences with bullying.

In response to this problem, the New York Civil Liberties Union, along with the Dignity for All Students Coalition, spent many years pushing for state legislation to address bullying.

In 2010, under the leadership of Assembly Member Daniel O’Donnell and Senator Tom Duane, New York State finally passed landmark anti-bullying legislation, set to take effect on July 1.

The Dignity Act aims to prevent bullying before it starts. It attempts to create a school environment free from discrimination and harassment by improving codes of conduct, instituting training and counseling programs that discourage bullying, and creating a way to track incidents of bullying and harassment.

The legislation also requires that schools provide in-class instruction from kindergarten through 12th grade about the importance of tolerance and respect for others, including awareness and sensitivity to discrimination, harassment and bullying.

This is a primary strength of the Dignity Act, which, as compared to other legislative attempts to address bullying, rightfully emphasizes education over the criminalization of children.

The curriculum requirement raises awareness in the classroom to the problem of harassment and bullying and ensures that students will receive lessons that promote sensitivity, understanding and cooperation, which then will prevent future acts of bullying. Classroom instruction helps students internalize their responsibility for stopping bullying in a way that punishments cannot.

It is this requirement that the Regents have now said does not apply to charter schools.

In March, the State Education Department took the position, which the Regents adopted, that the curriculum requirement in the Dignity Act did not apply to charter schools because it amended a section of state law that generally does not apply to charter schools. Their decisions were not widely publicized.

Alone, this curriculum requirement may seem rudimentary, yet as part of a comprehensive approach to stopping and fighting bullying, it is critical. Limiting the applicability of this provision hinders the ability of charter schools to prevent bullying.

The State Education Department did not have to come to this conclusion. The general curriculum exemption was designed to give charter schools some flexibility in their methods of instruction – it’s not a free pass to avoid protecting students’ civil rights.

Indeed, under the Charter Schools Act, charter schools are subject to the “same health and safety, civil rights and student assessment requirements applicable to other public schools.”

The Dignity Act is a civil rights law, and exempting charter schools from a key requirement of the Act goes against the very purpose of the law, which was meant to apply to all students. According to Assembly Member O’Donnell, the lead sponsor of the bill, “this will create the anomalous result that students in public charter schools will have less protection from harassment and bullying than students in traditional public schools. Nothing could be further from the legislative intent.”

The NYCLU has worked closely with the State Education Department to help guide school districts as they implement the Dignity Act, and I sit on the statewide task force charged with much of this work.

I have no doubt that the State Education Department takes seriously the problem of bullying. Yet the Education Department clearly made a mistake when it recommended that the Board of Regents exempt charter schools from the curriculum requirement of the Dignity Act.

It’s not too late for the state to fix this mistake.

Udi Ofer is the advocacy director of the New York Civil Liberties Union.

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